New priests answer the call to help heal scandal-weary Catholics
John Stokely has known about his vocation ever since his religion teacher, Sister Patricia, asked every student in the first-grade class what he or she wanted to be when they grew up.
A priest, he answered.
"I didn't know much about the priesthood at all, but it was something I felt strongly in my heart – a simple desire," said Stokely, now 26.
Thomas Viviano says he "got the call" while he was teaching Spanish at Abington High School.
"From the very beginning, I got the feeling that this wasn't it. That if 30 years down the road, if I looked back and I had just remained a Spanish teacher – it would have been a good life, but it ultimately wouldn't be what God was calling me to," Viviano explained.
Now, Stokely, who has studied for eight years at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary; Viviano, 29; and another classmate, Sean Loomis, 28, will be ordained to the priesthood this weekend.
The three men will be the first seminarians to be ordained in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia since the conviction of Monsignor William Lynn last summer. Lynn was sentenced to three to six years in prison for covering up sex abuses by priests under his supervision and endangering children.
Behind the iron gates at St. Charles, the seminarians have not turned a blind eye to the landmark conviction or the scandal.
Stokely said last summer they spoke about the scandal nearly every day.
"The scandal caused a real sad awakening for many of us," said Stokely. "We realize that evil is real and even priests aren't impervious to its influences."
Despite the hurt and betrayal that Catholics have felt over the scandal, Viviano and Stokely see their role as being a part of the healing process for the church.
"Hopefully it will be through us, through our ministry, through our priesthood, that some of the hurt that has happened will be healed or we can restore faith where it is shaken," said Viviano.
Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, a clinical associate professor of pastoral studies at Catholic University, said the sentiments of the young seminarians in response to the sex abuse scandal is not unique.
Rossetti said he sees young men entering the seminary who are eager to make a difference in the church and respond to the tragedy.
Nationally, the ordination rate of Catholic priests has been steady for 20 years hovering between 450 to 500 each year, said Mary Gautier, a senior research associate with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
About a third of the newly ordained priests are needed to take the places of Catholic clergy who retire or die every year, she said.
The ordination will take place Saturday at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.