By ALLISON ROSS
COLUMBIA — Growing up, Chris Aubuchon thought his life would be like the lives of most other young men in his hometown of Hermann: Get married, have children and someday live on a farm.
But in his senior year of high school, Aubuchon said he realized God and the Roman Catholic Church had a different plan for him.
When a friend asked Aubuchon whether he had ever considered the priesthood, Aubuchon said he suddenly had a gut feeling that the life he had always imagined for himself was not the one he was meant to have and that he needed to follow another path.
Aubuchon began to pray about the idea of becoming a priest. The more he prayed, the more he said he felt pushed toward this vocation.
However, the decision to give up having a family and enter seminary was not easy.
"I was distressed," Aubuchon said. "I doubted myself, doubted what God could do through me."
Despite his doubts, the feeling that this is what he should be doing wouldn't go away, especially not as more people at his Catholic church in Hermann began asking him to consider the priestly vocation.
He continued praying, and, in March 2006, Aubuchon said a special "novena" prayer, which is a devotion said for nine consecutive days to obtain special graces.
"I just said, ‘Lord, show me the way, I need your help,'" Aubuchon said. "On the fifth day — I didn't even get to the last day — I felt this is what I need to do."
Aubuchon, now 20, is one of only a small group of young people in the United States who decide to become a Roman Catholic priest. According to research by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership in Washington, D.C., slightly more than 3 percent of Roman Catholic priests are under the age of 35, while more than 65 percent are 55 or older.
Mary Gautier, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, said between 1965 and 2006, the number of U.S. diocesan priests dropped from almost 36,000 to about 28,000 when the Catholic population grew by nearly 20 million people to 64 million. The center, based at Georgetown University, conducts social science research about the Catholic church.
Despite this decline, Aubuchon joins a handful of other young mid-Missouri residents who are still finding their calling in the Catholic church.
Some have felt the pull to ministry their entire lives; others discovered their path later. For some, the decision comes as a sudden realization; for others, it's a long-deliberated choice to make it a second career.
The spiritual path that led them to enter seminary and the journey that they must take to reach the priesthood is not easy. But they share a commitment to seeing it to completion.
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Aubuchon's journey almost ended before it even began.
When he visited Conception Seminary College near Maryville shortly after deciding to enter seminary, Aubuchon said he was again assailed with doubts about his decision.
"I got this feeling I wasn't worthy or smart enough again," Aubuchon said. "I just said, ‘Gosh, priests have to talk to so many people and help so many people.' I didn't think I could do it."
His friends and family convinced him to give it a year, and Aubuchon said he's glad he did.
"I feel this is where I need to be," he said.
Aubuchon says he still doubts that he has what it takes to be a priest. And sometimes, when he sees families together or couples dating, he says it's hard for him to imagine giving all that up forever. But as he continues his pursuit of the priesthood, the doubts and worries have lessened.
"My mentality has kind of changed a lot here (in seminary)," Aubuchon said. "I'm learning to lay my life down and say, ‘I'm here to serve you any way you want me to.' It's easy to ask for things from God. It's harder to accept whatever he'll give me."
And it helps to be surrounded by other people who are also making the choice to join the priesthood.
Jason Doke, 31, lives in a building near Aubuchon's at Conception Seminary. He, too, is from mid-Missouri and moved to the seminary after living for several years in Columbia. He also struggled with his decision to take up the call to priesthood.
After graduating from MU with a biology degree in 1999, he worked in MU's Division of Biological Sciences for seven years before finally making the decision to change career paths and become a Catholic priest.
"I did feel God calling me, but it wasn't what I wanted to do at the time," Doke said. "I felt that it was something I needed to do, but it wasn't something I wanted to do initially."
The Rev. Joe Corel, vocation director for the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City, said that the decision to go into the priesthood is a difficult one for anyone, but that it is complicated by a culture that emphasizes individual and material rewards.
"American culture is moving further away from spirituality," Corel said. "People are doing what they want instead of asking, ‘What does God want me to do?'"
Indeed, out of the 63 active diocesan priests in the Jefferson City diocese, only two are under the age of 35.
But, like Doke and Aubuchon, 20-year-old James Galbraith is an exception to the trend. Also a student at Conception Seminary who plans to enter the priesthood after completing his master's of divinity degree, Galbraith was raised in Holts Summit, where he said he found his love of the Catholic church.
According to the National Catholic Register, the largest number of priests per capita in the United States is coming from the Midwest and the South, and the trends of young priests-in-training is no exception.
"Of the young men that are going into the priesthood, a substantial proportion tend to come from Midwestern dioceses," Gautier said. "You don't see as many young priests coming from New England, although there certainly are many. In the Midwest, it's still a very Catholic culture."
Gautier said she wasn't sure why the Midwest draws a greater proportion of young priests, but "it's a pattern that has persisted over time."
A 2003 to 2006 study of diocesan ordination rates puts the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, which covers the southern portion of Missouri, in the top 10 of the dioceses and archdioceses for the highest proportion of ordained priests per Catholic, according to a study done by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
Although Galbraith is from the same geographic area as Aubuchon and Doke, his journey into the priesthood took a different path.
From age 5, he knew that he wanted to become a priest. He loved being involved in the small town's religious community and was encouraged by his devoutly Catholic family to begin thinking about his place in the church at an early age. Most of all, though, he was inspired by watching the work of his Catholic parish priest.
"He was just a really good example of the devoted Catholic priest," Galbraith said. "He celebrated the sacraments and prayed joy, love and reverence. I could just tell at Mass something really amazing was going on."
Even at that young age, Galbraith said he could feel the pull to ministry.
Speaking slowly and struggling to find the right words, Galbraith described his calling as "persistent encouragement, feeling that Christ is asking or leading you toward the priesthood, that he has this in mind for you," Galbraith said.
After high school, he eagerly went straight to seminary and is now in his second year of what is generally an eight-year program. First, he must finish an undergraduate program to get a bachelor's degree in philosophy, then he must complete a master's of divinity program immediately after.
Galbraith said although the call to priesthood came to him early on, his spiritual journey is still ongoing as he tries to draw closer to his "best friend in the whole world" — God.
"The chance to be in seminary is just a chance to grow more in Christ," Galbraith said. "By trying to respond to my vocation as fully as possible is the way to draw closer. Studies can be a challenge sometimes, but no difficulty is too great to serve him and the church.
Aging clergy poses problems for faith communities
Not only the Catholic Church but all Christian denominations have seen an aging of their clergy in recent years, according to Melissa Wiginton, vice president for ministry programs and planning at the Fund for Theological Education.
"When you look at the stats of who is pastoring churches, there has been a significant decrease in young people," she said, saying that fewer than 7 percent of the people pastoring churches are under the age of 35. She added that congregations often don't think to encourage young people to consider ministry until their religious leader leaves or retires.
Wiginton said the decline in young people going into religious ministry as a profession is a serious problem, because, as current pastors and priests age and begin to retire, fewer young clergy exist to replace them in the churches. Young clergy also work more years compared to older clergy, who draw retirement after working fewer years.
Wiginton said churches should plan for a leader's retirement, just as businesses and other nonprofits do when key managers approach retirement age.
"In some ways, the church is just another institution like any other business, " Wiginton said. "But in other ways, it's totally different. There has to be a calling from God for a person to enter religious leadership, not just an ask by the church."
Theologians and church leaders alike have speculated on the reason why younger people are less likely to become members of the clergy.
Some argue that a rampant consumer culture makes doing low-paying work with intangible successes unattractive to young adults. Others blame the trend in which young adults take a longer time to settle down and choose their professions. Still others say that fewer youth find the church and religion relevant to their daily lives.
However, Wiginton said a few seminaries have seen slight increases in enrollments among 20 and 30 year olds. According to research by the Association of Theological Schools, 44 percent of 2007 seminary students were in their 20s, up from 37 percent eight years ago.
Mary Gautier, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, said surprisingly, recent sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church may have contributed to slight increases in the number of men entering the priesthood.
College-aged seminarians are saying, "The priesthood isn't bad in and of itself, and I want to show people that," Gautier said