Pope Benedict XVI is an inspiration for future priests

New York, June 21,2008 - For the New York Archdiocese, one positive affect of the April visit by Pope Benedict XVI to the Big Apple could be a turnaround in the dwindling number of men who are choosing to become priests.

The Rev. Robert Bubel, who is one of the archdiocese's six newly ordained priests, played a major role as a deacon during the April 19 papal Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Bubel, whose formative religious years were spent in St. Columba parish in Hopewell Junction, said celebrating Mass for Pope Benedict affirmed his own decision to give his life to God.

"It certainly motivates me as a priest in wanting to give my entire life to the service of God and his people," he said. "I see a man like Pope Benedict who is so talented and given so many gifts by God. And he's given all of this to God and this is so important to him. His faith is so strong and a desire to spread that faith to the youth of America essentially is absolutely inspiring. It's such a powerful affirmation of what I'm giving my entire life to."

Bubel attended St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers. He was among the seminarians who greeted the pope at a youth rally and prayer service there.

"It was very, very special because the seminary is our home," he said. "To welcome the pope into our home meant a lot. We're a bunch of young guys, too. We're hooting and hollering. ... It really was a powerful, powerful moment."

The pope's visit, Bubel said, ignited an interest in young men keen to study at the seminary to become a priest.

"Rumors that I've heard is that the phone was ringing off the hook following his visit," he said. "Unfortunately, you can never really know until September 1, the day when people show up."

One of the people who is still experiencing the papal visit, in a sense, is the Rev. Luke Sweeney, director of vocations for the Archdiocese of New York.

Normally, he receives a couple of inquires each week from young men considering the priesthood. But during the last three weeks, he has received dozens. Some of them are quite serious and come from men who say Pope Benedict 's visit has inspired them to consider taking a step they have avoided.

This was the hope. The Archdiocese faces a worsening shortage of priests and is in great need of seminarians. The archdiocese has about 470 active diocesan priests - compared to 1,200 four decades ago - and about 40 percent are between 65 and 75.

At St. Patrick's Cathedral in May, Cardinal Edward Egan ordained six diocesan priests, including Bubel and the Rev. Ronald Perez, who has been assigned to Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha parish in the Town of LaGrange. The main or upper seminary at St. Joseph's will train fewer than 20 men next fall.

"It's always been my gut feeling and belief that there are guys out there thinking about it," Sweeney said referring to the priesthood. "The idea has been kicking around for a while, maybe years, but for whatever reason - work, fear, simply pushing it out of their minds - they can't take the step. My hope was the Holy Father's visit would knock some people off the fence and give us the shot in the arm we need.

"It seems to be happening," said Sweeney, who talks about the priesthood at high schools, colleges and parishes.

He is excited, but cautiously so. Of the men who have contacted him, some will get cold feet right away. Others will need to finish college or to take a few years to consider their vocation or get up their courage. Others will prove to be a poor fit for the priesthood.

"We want to avoid flash-in-the-pan conversions," Sweeney said. "We really monitor applications. But I want to talk to them as soon as possible to get a sense of their vocation, of whether they are a promising candidate."

Taking a step

Sweeney believes at least several young men may be ready to enter St. Joseph's minor seminary this fall, where students study philosophy and other subjects before entering the main seminary to study theology.

The true impact of the papal visit, though, won't be known for more than a decade, Sweeney said. The hope is that men who enter the seminary years from now will look back on the papal visit as a formative experience - and a counter to the sex-abuse crisis that has certainly weighed on the minds of young Catholic men in recent years.

"I'm hopeful that in the coming years, young men will say, 'That's the first time I thought about the priesthood, when the pope was in New York,' " Sweeney said.

Bubel, 30, celebrated his first Mass on May 11 at St. Columba Church with his family and friends in attendance.

"It was so intimate and warm and happy," he said. "It was a joyous, joyous occasion."

He has been assigned to St. Stephen's parish in Warwick in Orange County.

Bubel said what led to his becoming a priest were parents that were oriented to attending Mass every Sunday and providing him with a Catholic education. He attended grade school at St. Columba School and Our Lady of Lourdes High School in Poughkeepsie.

"First and foremost, it really does start in the family," Bubel said. "Also my parish priests who served as role models for me, were people I wanted to be like."

Add Pope Benedict to that list of role models.

"One thing I recognized was how reverent he was - the way he celebrated Mass, the way he took time before Mass began to kneel before the Blessed Sacrament and say his prayers," Bubel said. "A real inspiration of a priest."

Reach John Davis at jpdavis@poughkeepsiejournal.com or 845-437-4807. Reach Gary Stern at gstern@lohud.com or 1-914-694-3513.

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