As number of Catholic priests declines in U.S., Wichita ordains 10

Ten new priests ordained into Wichita Diocese

Ten seminarians were ordained as priests during a ceremony at the Church of the Magdalen in 2017.
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Ten seminarians were ordained as priests during a ceremony at the Church of the Magdalen in 2017.

One by one, 10 men had their hands anointed with oil, symbolizing their participation in Christ’s priesthood. Soon, the newly ordained priests stood at the front of the Church of the Magdalen, administering the Eucharist for the first time.

In the United States, the number of priests has been declining even as the number of Catholics has increased.

Saturday’s ordination of 10 new priests in the Catholic Diocese of Wichita goes against the grain. Next year, another 10 priests who became transitional deacons last week will also be ordained.

Those 20 men will bring roughly a 20 percent increase to the number of active priests in the diocese.

“This is a game changer for us in terms of a diocese our size,” said Bishop Carl Kemme. “It’s very unusual, very uncommon to have this large a number.”

The diocese ordained large classes in the 1950s, but modern-day classes tend to be between one and four priests, Kemme said.

As other dioceses struggle to find a priest for every parish, the increasing number of priests in Wichita is allowing the diocese to find creative placements. It also has caused others to wonder why the diocese has so many men interested in the priesthood.

“Our hearts are swelling with gratitude to God,” said the Rev. David Lies, vicar general of the diocese. “We are overjoyed that we see the church alive, vibrant. We see young men, skilled in many ways, who could have made other choices with ways to have spent their lives, choosing to give their lives for the good of others.”

Reasons for growth

The Rev. J.D. Betzen, one of the priests ordained Saturday, said he realized his calling to become a priest while participating in Eucharistic adoration, spending time alone with the bread that Catholics believe has transformed into the actual body of Christ.

“It was there in that silence, where it’s just you and God, where I finally encountered an honesty with myself, looking at what I need to do with my life, that I realized that the plans I’d had my whole life long weren’t necessarily what God had planned,” Betzen said.

Growing up outside Derby, Betzen attended Catholic schools, something he said helps people stay open to the idea of attending seminary.

An April 7 issue of the Catholic Advance, the diocesan newspaper, said the diocese had 58 seminarians — a ratio of one seminarian for every 1,845 Catholics, dwarfing the ratios in places like the archdioceses of Los Angeles or New York.

That article pointed to Catholic schools as one reason for the diocese’s number of seminarians. Unlike the rest of the nation, Catholic school enrollment in Wichita has increased since 1985. The percentage of baptized children enrolled in Catholic schools for kindergarten is also higher than the national average.

A survey of the men newly ordained across the United States this year found they were more likely to have attended Catholic school than U.S. Catholics in general.

Kemme said Wichita is no better than any other place, but that he has found a “dynamic” Catholic life in the diocese.

“That’s one, if not maybe the most important, component in the fostering of vocations to the priesthood and religious life,” Kemme said. “People really do live their faith here in a strong way.”

Newly ordained priest the Rev. Andrew Bergkamp said there’s no magic formula to having so many people interested in ordination, but that it comes from having strong families and good examples set by local priests.

He also pointed to Father Emil Kapaun, currently being considered for canonization, as perhaps playing a role in the blessings of the church.

“It’s a tremendous blessing from God,” Bergkamp said. “We can’t stress enough how grateful we are to the people of the diocese.”

Placing the priests

In 1970, there were more than 59,000 Catholic priests in the United States. In 2016, numbers had dwindled to just above 37,000, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

At the same time, the Catholic population has grown from 51 million to 74.2 million, leaving 3,499 parishes without a resident priest pastor.

Yet after Saturday’s ordination in Wichita, some area parishes will receive an additional priest. Others may even receive a third priest – something that is highly unusual, Kemme said.

In addition to placing priests within the diocese, Wichita has been able to lend priests to other dioceses. Two priests are on loan to the Catholic Diocese of Dodge City, another is working in seminary formation at Conception Abbey, and a fourth works in Tulsa in hospital ministry.

“It’s a blessing to be able to do that, because those blessings then come back to us,” Kemme said. “I think to not share them would not be a very Christian or Catholic thing to do.”

The Rev. Jorge Lopez said he was excited to obtain his assignment, handed out in an envelope after ordination. Originally from Jalisco, Mexico, Lopez moved to the United States for seminary.

During his years of study, Lopez realized just how much people in the diocese were excited to receive 10 new priests.

When he was ordained Saturday, nearly 2,000 people filled the Church of the Magdalen to welcome the new priests to the diocese.

“It gives me a lot of hope to go into the priesthood, because there’s so many people in this diocese supporting us, loving us and praying for us,” Lopez said. “I think it’s time for us to just come and give back to the people.”

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @KathsBurgess