A Few Good Men

The pay is bad, the hours are worse, and the job description precludes sex, marriage, and children. On the hunt for the next generation of priests.

Dr. Madd Vibe The Beachland, 15711 Waterloo Road 7 p.m., Sunday, May 27



Father Bob Stec wakes up at six, ready to tackle God's will. It'll keep him up past midnight. He'll motor throughout the eight counties that make up the Diocese of Cleveland, a cell phone strapped to his side and a question burned into his mind: Where can I find new priests?

As the vocation director at St. Mary's Seminary in Wickliffe, the proving grounds for Cleveland-area priests, it's Stec's job to answer this question. So he spends his days enlightening third-graders, who otherwise dream of becoming firemen, astronauts, and halfbacks. He probes high schoolers, hinting that there's a mission greater than beer and babes. He speaks to middle-aged men who find the business world soulless and are searching for something more.

In Stec's eyes, everyone has a purpose, a vocation, a calling they must answer. For him, it is the priesthood. What drives Stec is the knowledge that other men are called as he; they just don't recognize it. So his job is to be a farmer for Catholicism, "planting that seed, stirring a thought or an idea," so that new priests may grow.

Stec's radiant face advertises the calling better than words can. He talks about the privilege of hearing confession, where sinners whisper their guilt away. He speaks of the stirring in one's soul when he -- and he alone -- is welcomed into a home, where a woman with red eyes ushers him to a bed in which an obstinate old man clings to life, refusing to let go till the priest arrives.

But for all his dogged preaching in school gymnasiums and at confirmation retreats, only a few men will enter the seminary each year. "It's frustrating," Stec says, "especially when you find good people. But it's their choice."

By conventional standards, it's not an attractive career. The hours are long, the wages brutal. The work involves nights and weekends, and the boss makes sure one's always on-call. After all, He doesn't want His guys going cheap on the customer service.

There's also the small matter of abdicating wealth and women, family and freedom. It's all part of the job description. Which has made selling the priesthood tougher than ever, even for an enterprise with two millennia under its belt.

The Catholic Church has an acute shortage of new messengers. Being young and devoted to the priesthood became pass´ somewhere around the time of the Sexual Revolution. While that trend was slower to hit Cleveland, a bastion of Catholicism, there's no doubt of its presence now.

In 1970, there were 240 priests under the age of 40 working in the Diocese of Cleveland. By 1980, that number fell to 191. Today, it's 37. And even as the Catholic population has grown -- the diocese places membership at 838,000 -- the number of priests has shrunk by 30 percent in the last 30 years.

"We've always been counter-culture," Stec says, "but now we're radically counter-culture."

When Brian Wolfe was 10, he rolled out of bed every weekday for the 5:30 a.m. Mass, partly because he could expect a trip with Dad to the bakery for doughnuts. He prayed at dinner, prayed before bed, attended every Lent service, and said the rosary with his family.

He became comfortable at the altar, serving Mass at Holy Family in Parma as a fourth-grader. In eighth grade, just before his confirmation ceremony, Wolfe and his classmates were each invited to a one-on-one with the priest.

"He asked me if I had ever thought of becoming a priest," Wolfe recalls. "I said 'No!'"

He figured it was a routine question, but when he rejoined his classmates, he asked if they, too, got the priest question. He was the only one, and it made him think.

Wolfe emerged as a youth leader at Holy Name High School, organizing retreats and special Masses. But he was also dating and on the college-prep track; he figured he'd go to Miami of Ohio, study to be an architect. Yet he couldn't shake the idea planted by the priest. When his senior class voted him the winner in the Most Exemplifies Christianity category, he thought about it all the more.

In the spring of his senior year, 17-year-old Wolfe sat down at a table with his father and told him he wanted to enroll at Borromeo, a collegiate seminary, then graduate to St. Mary's. He wanted to become a priest.

The announcement didn't surprise Tim Wolfe. He had seen his son's faith develop, watched how Brian gravitated to leadership positions within the church.

Still, he wanted to make sure his son had thought it through. "I told him, 'I'm going out of town for a couple of days, and when I get back, I want you to tell me the one reason you're choosing to enter the priesthood,'" says Tim.

A few days later, they resumed the conversation. Brian told his father how he admired the way Dad's work benefited each member of their family, but Brian wanted his career to benefit more than just a single family. He believed it his destiny.

"That was much more profound than I expected to hear from a 17-year-old," Tim recalls.

But the reaction of their parish spoke to the state of Catholicism and the stature of the priesthood. Some congratulated the Wolfes. Others disapproved.

"I was amazed at all the good Catholic families with children, who, when they found out about Brian entering the priesthood, were against it," Tim says. "There were people who suggested that we were not giving Brian the proper guidance."

Wolfe graduated from Holy Name, broke up with his girlfriend, and entered Borromeo, then St. Mary's, to embrace the nine-year process of becoming ordained. He fell into the routine of morning prayer, breakfast, class, lunch, class, dinner, and evening Mass. It was "like a fraternity," he says, sans the kegerator and panties nailed to the wall. He played intramural sports, hung out, and clicked away at Madden football on Nintendo 64.

Wolfe's dark hair is gelled, bangs plucked up. He dresses in the casual style of a college man -- khaki pants, seersucker shirts -- who wants to display taste, but not try too hard. His is a look more player than priest.

Within his circle of friends -- most of whom attend Ohio colleges -- Wolfe is the "counselor." Women tell him about their boyfriend problems, guys talk about their women woes, and female friends can't help but tease him. They call him "Father What-a-Waste," a compliment to his looks, if not his calling.

"I said, 'That doesn't really speak well of my vocation,'" laughs Wolfe. "Girls always tell me, 'You could be married and have a family. You'd make a great dad.' Yeah, maybe, but I've been called to something else."

At 22, Wolfe is the youngest member of St. Mary's Seminary, the five-year graduate school that precedes ordination. The elder members -- many are middle-aged -- marvel at his even hormonal keel and his poise in "accepting the call" before sowing his wild oats.

Not that Wolfe lives a completely sheltered life. He goes to the Flats and the Warehouse District -- friends' parents are always surprised to hear Brian is joining the barhop. He'd rather listen to U2, Dave Matthews Band, or the Cranberries than Christian rock. Posters of Sarah McLachlan and Shania Twain share his walls with a portrait of Christ.

He's three years away from his vow of celibacy, after which he is to be chaste in all actions.

"I've kind of accepted not having a girlfriend," he says. "I've put that in the past. Of course, I still think about it, but it's not something serious. There's still times -- just being young -- when you wish you were more 'normal,' that you fit into the crowd. But this is where I'm supposed to be . . . Even though I still find girls attractive, I have to keep it in perspective."

To Wolfe, the greatest challenge in celibacy is not the exclusion of sex, but the impossibility of a wife, son, or daughter. Yet he believes in the rules. They ensure he will favor no member over others while serving a parish, even though dropping the tradition would make the commitment less daunting and likely bolster seminary enrollment.

His is a sense of sacrifice not often linked to his generation, but it's shared by fellow seminarian Mark Monahan, 24. As other collegians flocked to Daytona for spring break, Monahan flew to a church in El Salvador, where farm animals grazed in the aisles.

Though their generation hasn't shown an affinity for religion, Wolfe and Monahan nonetheless defend their peers. There is spirituality, they say; it's just not professed so openly. As for those without, that's why the two men study -- so that they may "bring God to people."

Bishop Anthony Pilla has seen the church change since he became bishop 20 years ago -- especially since he first entered the seminary as a high school sophomore in the 1950s. Back then, a Catholic family was too big to drive to Mass in a single car. It surprised no one to see four, six, eight like-looking kids lined up in a pew.

"Our families are smaller than they used to be," says Pilla. "When families had 10 kids, having a priest, a doctor, a lawyer, that was normal stuff. Now, if you only have one son, who's going to carry the family name? Who's going to give them grandchildren? So when we're recruiting, we're not recruiting from such a huge pool."

The church doesn't pluck from the shallow end of the pool, either. It needs men with the intellectual capacity for years of study, the charisma to conjure the Holy Spirit in the flock.

"For men of that ability, they have a lot of professions to choose from, and the material rewards of those professions are significant," Pilla says. "We're asking a very talented person to give all that up, and in our culture, where money determines success, people see the priesthood as a waste."

The church competes not only against a dollar-obsessed society for the best men; it competes with womankind, which is also on the prowl for the best men. It's not a new dilemma for the church. But the ubiquity of sex in movies and television, Pilla argues, stokes the carnal passions of men as never before -- maybe enough to obscure God's calling.

"Celibacy is a real challenge in our culture," Pilla says. "And pop psychology questions the wisdom of that choice, because sexual, physical, and genital expression is what this culture believes is the epitome of normal, healthy behavior."

But the report from the recruiting trail -- via Father Stec -- is that celibacy is not nearly the deterrent that a general fear of commitment is. Many a young man has scurried from Stec's office when the subject of commitment is raised.

"Twentysomethings, much less teens, have a phenomenally difficult time with commitment. They can't even decide what to do on a Saturday night," Stec says. He tries to tell them that there's tranquillity to be had in making that commitment. It usually takes some convincing.

The trend against commitment shows up in the increasing number of divorces, in how couples cohabit, then get married later -- or not at all, Pilla says. And those who renege on commitment get off guilt-free -- very much a no-no under the laws of Catholicism.

"Fidelity, if you watch TV and read, it's not necessarily something a lot of people prize, cherish, or uphold," Pilla says. "They want to be free" -- the bishop flaps his hands and frowns -- "free to just do it. There aren't any rules. The rule is, if it's pleasurable, do it. In that kind of context, a permanent commitment is hard to make."

The bishop does his best not to sound cynical or bitter. The '50s and '60s were, he admits, too repressive. But he insists the modern age isn't repressive enough. "It's a crass and in many ways coarse culture."

Even if he knows the church must change with the times, Pilla makes a distinction between evolving and degenerating. He thinks the church should hold its moral ground. After all, the institution has survived criticism before.

Martin Luther had exactly 95 objections to the church. King Henry VIII wasn't keen on that no-divorce clause. There have been holy wars, inquisitions, and corrupt popes.

Today, it's fashionable to refer to oneself as a "recovering Catholic." The church's absolute codes, guilt-heavy theology, and exclusion of women in ranking roles invite rebellion.

"So many of our values are counter-cultural that people see us as irrelevant and not with the times," Pilla says. "If I had a nickel for every time somebody said, 'Get with it, Bishop Pilla, it's the 21st century . . .' But I just smile at that. We've been around for 2,000 years, and there's not many things -- especially here in the United States -- that can relate to a 2,000-year tradition."

There's been pressure to drop the celibacy rule and to allow for female ministers. Pilla says debating these issues is a waste of breath. "There are laws that we as Catholics perceive as being of divine origin," he says. "We believe we don't have the authority to change them."

This, of course, leads some to believe the church is copping a holier-than-thou attitude. It's a perception that makes Catholicism a sitting duck for scandals, the most popular of which are stories painting the priesthood as a repository for perverts.

Father Donald Cozzens, rector of St. Mary's, learned of the media appetite for priestly sex when he read the reviews of his book, The Changing Face of the Priesthood, published last year. In one chapter, Cozzens acknowledged that there were closeted gays in the profession, and he quoted a few studies that tried to pin down a percentage. Estimates range between 15 and 60 percent.

"All of a sudden, Cozzens is saying half the seminarians tend to be gay," he says of the media spin on his book. "Of course, the majority of the book is about priests struggling with their professional identity, but that's not as racy as gay priests."

Such public-image beatings have left church leaders frustrated. In his book, Cozzens suggests the sexual controversies have scared young men away from the vocation. At the least, it's given them one more reason to discard thought of a parish career.

For 30 years, Craig Hovanec believed he was supposed to be a salesman and entrepreneur.

Hovanec was 11, and he and his younger brother Dave first began their careers as capitalists, hustling through paper routes and knocking on doors for new subscriptions. They were good at it, natural salesmen. Later, Craig was the pacesetter when it came to selling candy bars for his high school band.

"It seemed like [selling] was definitely a part of who I was," Hovanec says. "I got enjoyment from it."

He worked construction in his teens, then peddled copy machines before finally buying his first business: an ice cream and candy shop in Strongsville. The shop had struggled before Hovanec arrived. He started mixing his own ice cream. It was such a hit that country clubs, restaurants, and caterers asked to buy it wholesale.

Dave Hovanec jumped in as a partner. The brothers sold the shop and turned their attention to the manufacture of Country Parlour Ice Cream. They lived with their parents. Craig worked the day shift and spent his nights in school pursuing a bachelor's degree.

Despite it all, he still managed to attend church loyally and was often asked by other Catholics if he ever considered the seminary.

"Please, I'm not priest material," he told them. Hovanec and his brother forged ahead with the business. Dave delayed his wedding for three years till the company was on solid ground. Craig worked with clients and tackled the administrative tasks. He wasn't a ruthless businessman, but he knew that when he won a client, someone else lost one.

"There were those situations where you're trying to get a customer, and you think, 'What can I do to make the competitor look bad?'" Hovanec says. "'What kind of negative seeds can I really plant about them, because we need this piece of business?'"

As the company began to take flight, Hovanec pushed himself even harder. "I lived, breathed, and slept the business."

He bought a condo and filled it with Berber carpeting, leather furniture, shiny appliances, and surround-sound stereo. He eradicated a decade of debt, and his bank account was gaining momentum.

Hovanec had captured the American dream. Somehow, it didn't add up to much.

"I've got this place, it's full of furniture. I've got money in the bank, and now what? And then this wave hits me. I had achieved success, but I felt a sincere emptiness. There had to be more to life than this. That's when I started listening."

The voice had been with him for some time, reminding him that his faith was slipping. He describes it as a "nagging." It wouldn't stop. So he went to see Father Stec.

"My original idea was that I was crazy," Hovanec says. "I'm not called to be a priest. I'll go, he'll tell me I'm too old, and I'll put it to rest."

The opposite happened. Stec introduced him to the other seminarians. They talked more about Hovanec's faith and his personal makeup. After the talking and praying was over, Hovanec left the company he founded -- and the brother who was his lifetime business partner -- to enroll at St. Mary's.

"It was a shock in the sense that we had both dived headfirst, and I couldn't believe he wasn't going to be a part of the business anymore," Dave says. "But I always knew [the priesthood] was rolling around in the back of his mind, and maybe it got too loud for him, and he had to address it."

Craig went from company big shot to dorm-dwelling seminarian. The leather furniture, the bedroom set, and the surround-sound stereo stayed in the condo to gather dust. He moved into a 9-by-12-foot room that required Hovanec, at 33, to ascend a loft at bedtime.

Four years later, Hovanec says he's happier, more fulfilled than ever. "In the ministry, I just talk, be the example, and if people don't listen, then maybe next time they will," he says. "There's this great internal peace in doing what God wants and letting Him do the rest, letting it unfold. It's not about me anymore."

Hovanec represents a new incarnation of seminarian: the late bloomer. They're not enrolling after eighth grade or high school, as they did in the '50s. They're graduating college, disappearing into the real world, and turning 30 and 40 before they realize they're lost.

"They come from good careers, lead successful lives, have good personal relationships," Stec says. "They're physically, psychologically, emotionally healthy people, and it's not like they just couldn't get a date or a job. They don't have that sense of fulfillment, and they show up at the front door of the seminary."

If money, sex, and selfishness infect American culture, the Catholic Church is hoping its old, familiar lessons of virtue and humility can be the antidote.

"We're getting a lot of people who know there's something more to life," says Pilla. "They've tried the sexual stuff, the materialistic stuff, and they're still coming up empty. That's the kind of guy we want to meet."

Rod Kreidler took this circuitous path. Religion was always important to him. Some of his fondest childhood memories come from picking vegetables in the family garden, then depositing them at a convent, which distributed food to the poor.

In high school, Kreidler discovered a talent for computer programming. He would go to Kent State, then become a senior systems analyst at KeyBank, where he accumulated 10 years of seniority, a generous salary, and office power.

Midway up the corporate ladder, however, Kreidler decided he was supposed to be somewhere else. He didn't hate his job. It was a challenge. There was variety. He liked the people in the office. But the lack of depth gnawed at him until he, too, knocked on Stec's door.

"When it came down to it, it was the emptiness of success," Kreidler says.

Reverend Ken Wallace, ordained last year, went through similar false starts. He was first a country club chef, then a caterer, then a child abuse investigator for Cuyahoga County.

Cooking wasn't meaningful enough, and social work "was just putting Band-Aids on problems." Wallace knew there was a shortage of priests and decided to give the seminary a try. He figured that, if he wasn't supposed to be a priest, the seminary would weed him out.

He graduated at 48 and got an assignment at Holy Family, one of Ohio's largest churches.

"There's something about celebrating Mass for the first time, hearing your first confession, anointing the sick as an ordained priest," Wallace says. "When someone hasn't been to confession in 20 or 25 years, you can just feel the healing, the spirit coming into their lives. People break down and weep in front of you. It's just awesome to think that an ordinary person like me has the opportunity to be called into the priesthood."

There is a honeymoon period for a man who marries the church. It's present in the three men who constitute St. Mary's Class of 2001, ordained May 19. They smile like dreaming children.

New priests don't pick their churches. That's the bishop's job. He bases his decision on parish need and the personality of both community and priest.

"There's that fear of the unknown that's there with any big step you take," admits Father Ed Smith, speaking the day before he would learn his parish assignment, "but it's really that feeling of awe and unworthiness more than anything else."

The newly ordained may find it hard to remain humble. Once he appears at an altar, a priest becomes a public figure -- and a target for groupies.

Reverend Tom Behrend, St. James's new priest, was strolling along a Lakewood sidewalk when a car slowed down to watch him. "It freaked me out," Behrend says. The car kept following, and just as the 31-year-old priest thought of making a run for it, the occupants piled out and accosted him: "Are you Father Tom?" They only wanted to welcome him to the neighborhood.

When Behrend went to Dairy Queen, he could hardly order before a dozen people introduced themselves. After he toured the Lakewood YMCA, he heard of how the staff knew he was a pastor at St. James, how they were impressed by him and hoped he would join.

Still, the magnitude of the work is difficult to handle. With priests in short supply and parishes growing into the thousands, it's hard for a pastor to be present at every family's major moments.

Father Robert Pfeiffer, pastor at Holy Martyrs in Medina, says a priest has to be more "versatile" than ever. Having moral character and spirituality is still important, but people skills are increasingly vital, as is time management.

Father Cozzens hears from exhausted priests all the time. "There's always someone who's ill, who needs to be visited. There are always family problems that need attention. Because of the pace of parish life, a priest realizes that, no matter how hard he pedals, he can't catch up. He's aware of how much good is not being done, simply because of his limitations, and that can lead to burnout."

Bishop Pilla acknowledges that, as priests become stretched, morale suffers. Few elderly priests walk away from parish work when retirement comes at age 70. They say Mass on the weekends, run religious errands that the working priests can't get to, substitute for those on vacation. Many don't stop till they're physically or mentally incapacitated. Pfeiffer, who will soon turn 67, says older priests are probably too willing to lend a hand.

"We feel obligated to hang in there, maybe longer than we should. I feel the pressure, of course. We all do. There are problems in the church and in the world, and I do my best, but it's beyond one priest. So I'm not going to feel guilty about it and stay on till my dying breath."

At the other end of the spectrum, Mark Ott, ordained this year, can't wait to have his energy tested. "People say, 'Don't you think you'll be lonely? Won't you be stressed out because there aren't enough priests to do the work?' But this is such a really cool thing to do, and I wish more people could understand the lifestyle. I haven't been a priest yet, but my sense is there's a lot of goodness out there that I'm looking forward to getting into."

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