More younger men answering call to religious life in Diocese of Pittsburgh

| Friday, Jan. 18, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Dan D'Antonio gave up his spot in the rat race to study for the priesthood.

“I left everything: the job, my apartment, my girlfriend,” said D'Antonio, 34, of West Mifflin, a former salesman. “It was a major life change.”

A second-year seminarian at St. Paul's Seminary in Crafton, D'Antonio said Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik's Holy Thursday homily several years ago helped him take a path he had been considering for some time.

“He said, ‘Leave your plans, your dreams, your pleasure. ... Come follow me,' ” D'Antonio said. “The wind got knocked out me. It took a couple of years to get the courage to move forward.”

The Catholic Church celebrates National Vocation Awareness Week this week, a time for parishes to promote the religious life — becoming priests, deacons or nuns — through prayer and education.

“It's kind of like a commercial attracting people to buy a new Chevy or Ford, or go to McDonald's,” Zubik said. “We've lost the sense of appreciation of what a vocation is. ... A vocation is a ticket to heaven.”

The Catholic Church needs priests. Their numbers in the United States dropped from 28,702 in 2005 to 26,661 last year, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Ordinations have gone up during that period, from 454 to 480, but haven't kept pace with the declining ranks.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh has 41 seminarians — 20 in pre-theological studies at St. Paul's and 21 studying theology at major seminaries across the country and in Rome. That's twice as many as when Zubik became bishop in September 2007.

The seminarians are part of the new face of the priesthood in Pittsburgh that is taking shape at St. Paul's.

“The last 15 to 20 years, they were all like (D'Antonio), second-career guys,” said the Rev. Joseph Mele, rector at St. Paul's. “Now, it's half and half.”

Joe Henkels, 20, of Bethel Park, a second-year seminarian, got his calling at the end of his senior year in high school.

His mother sensed for some time that he would be a priest. Telling his girlfriend “didn't go so well,” he said.

It can be a difficult decision for young men, even those with a strong interest in religion.

“It wasn't fun. ... I was looking forward to being a husband and a father,” said David Egan, 24, of Hampton, a first-year seminarian.

A recent study commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found significant interest among never-married Catholics ages 14-35 in the priesthood, said the Rev. Shawn McKnight, executive director of the U.S. Bishops' Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.

“We estimate that over 600,000 youth and young adults have seriously considered a religious vocation in the church,” he said. “The challenge is to pray for them and encourage them to take the next step as they discern God's call.”

At St. Bernard Church in Mt. Lebanon, events were held all week to promote vocations, including a Mass on Thursday attended by religious orders and seminarians. Other events included classroom visits and prayer hours.

The parish has three seminarians and one parishioner studying to be a Dominican brother, said the Rev. David Bonnar, pastor and former rector at St. Paul's.

“We have a strong nucleus of people who have a strong sense of vocations,” he said. “It's hard work, but something that demands a lot of prayer and patience.”

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or

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