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INCREASE IN PROSPECTIVE PRIESTS BUOYS DIOCESE

Enrollment for the fall semester increased in one area where it has lagged for decades: young men from the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo studying for the priesthood.

The number of new vocations is difficult to quantify because men discern a call to the priesthood at varying stages of their education.

But there are five freshmen students from Buffalo at Wadhams Hall in Ogdensburg. This year's jump in enrollment brings to six the number of Western New Yorkers at the liberal arts college, which provides prerequisites for the priesthood in philosophy and theology.

"These four years are a period of discernment to see if they want to go four more years, then on to the priesthood," said Sister Mary Christine, the academic dean at Wadhams Hall.

She said that in the late 1960s, 30 to 35 students might be sent from Buffalo to Wadhams Hall but that the current class is the largest from this region in quite some time.

"The number of vocations had lessened, but it is growing (in recent years)," she said. "It's a good thing to see that many coming from Buffalo this year."

Wadhams Hall graduates and men with bachelor's degrees who decide to continue their studies toward the priesthood are sent to a major seminary. For Western New York, that is Christ the King in East Aurora.

Christ the King enrolled 10 students in first theology studies this fall, according to the Rev. Leon Biernat, the vocation director for the Buffalo Diocese.

Two of these 10 students graduated from Wadhams Hall, and several came from the Pope John Paul II Residence in Buffalo. That is a place where students live in the community while attending a local university -- most go to Canisius -- and determining if they have a vocation. There are seven men living this year at the residence.

"This is a banner year," Biernat said. "We haven't seen 10 new men in formation or 10 new men at Christ the King in quite some time." Biernat said there are now 37 men from the diocese on track to become priests.

Thirty of them are at Christ the King. According to Patrick Halsman, spokesman at Christ the King, faculty members say there is an assumption nationwide that one-third of the men will decide the life of a priest is not for them before they finish at the seminary level.

Halsman said the last time there were more than 30 seminarians was in 1993, when there were 39. The number then dipped into the 20s and has been there since.

Biernat has been the vocation director since February 1999 and has made a few changes. He has advertised in high school yearbooks and on college campuses and has sent out messages to be included in church bulletins.

"This creates more of an awareness," he said, which can be a factor because if a young man is considering the priesthood, the repeat messages can move him to action. It also creates name awareness.

"At a confirmation retreat, four or five kids said, 'You're the guy from the yearbook.' That means a lot to me."

The largest change Biernat made was in creating a high school vocations group, the St. Joseph Club. He visits Catholic high schools promoting the club, which now has 35 members. They meet once a month, go on retreats and get a taste of the life of a priest so they can see if it's for them.

Biernat said four young men have already taken the first step toward enrollment at Wadhams Hall next year.

He also sends a note to every young man enrolled in confirmation classes asking them to consider the priesthood.

"Kids are not choosing to become priests because no one is asking them," Biernat said. "I think there is an interest among teens. Teens today have a real sense of God. We haven't given them the tools to express their faith."

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