In search ofpriests

The Rev. Jeff Kirby, in his office at the Drexel House, is the head of the Office of Vocations for the Catholic Diocese of Charleston.

It took two years, but the Catholic Diocese of Charleston has put in place a strategy where no strategy was before. It’s a special kind of outreach — or maybe it should be called inreach. Through aggressive use of social media, as well as regular visits to Catholic schools, parishes and other institutions in the state, diocese officials are hoping to find and encourage future priests.

The Rev. Jeffrey Kirby, vicar of vocations for the diocese, now works from a Charleston office in the Drexel House on Wentworth Street. He was appointed to the job two years ago, soon after the Most Rev. Robert E. Guglielmone took over as bishop.

Guglielmone made it clear early on that he would place a renewed emphasis on vocations: searching the state for people who feel called to a life as deacons, priests and women religious.

Priests are badly needed. The total number in the U.S. has declined from about 58,000 in 1965 to 39,000 in 2011, according to data compiled by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), an affiliate of Georgetown University.

The number of ordinations also has declined by more than 50 percent during the same period, from nearly 1,000 in 1965 to 467 last year.

The Diocese of Charleston, which has jurisdiction over Catholics throughout South Carolina, has in some ways countered this trend.

A relatively small Catholic population of 75,000 households, many of which consist of elderly occupants, engenders an intimacy not found in larger states, Kirby said. Relationships are forged, word gets around, support is forthrightly offered.

Proportionately, the diocese is doing well finding future priests. After three more young men begin the seminary studies this fall, a total of 12 will be on track to become parish priests in the state, he said.

One of them is Rhett Williams, 27, an assistant to Kirby working in the vocations office and a convert to Catholicism.

Williams said he grew up in the Lowcountry attending a nondenominational church in Goose Creek but found himself drawn to the structure and discipline of Catholicism.

He studied history and Spanish at Furman University even as he began to discern a future for himself in the church.

As a sophomore, he converted. After college, he spent a year as a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador, returning to Charleston in January 2011 and helping to renovate the Drexel House, a residence for Catholic men that was once home to the Sisters of Divine Providence.

While abroad, his faith strengthened still, and he was exposed to Catholicism in new ways. Today, he is preparing for seminary — Holy Trinity in Dallas — where he will likely spend about six years preparing for the priesthood.

As it does for all seminarians, the diocese will pay the $35,000 annual tuition.

Williams has been instrumental in helping Kirby devise a four-year strategic plan for vocational promotion, and using social media to get the word out.

Before this renewed effort launched in 2010, the Office of Vocations mostly stood by waiting for people to express interest or make inquiries, Kirby said. Diocesan staff engaged potential future priests only after they knocked on the door.

The new strategy instead relies on a proactive approach that combines old-fashioned visitations and advertising with extensive use of technology platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and a dynamic, information-rich website.

Kirby and Williams have introduced videos, both packaged and improvised, and they’ve managed to attract a number of Twitter followers, they said.

“(Social media) is the mall of today’s young people,” Kirby said. And it’s essential for getting the message out.

Williams said Facebook is a good way “to get a conversation started” and to spread information quickly.

Paul Lacombe, 19, grew up Catholic in Beaufort and has been thinking about becoming a priest since he was 5, he said.

After attending Benedict Military School in Savannah, Lacombe considered joining the Benedictine order, but then decided to remain at home with his family to think things through.

By October last year, he “became resolute” and began the application process to attend seminary. He said friends and family react differently to his decision. Some are confounded, others supportive. The issue of celibacy has come up, he said, prompting a conversation about what he, Kirby and others say is a misunderstood requirement.

“It’s a gift we give to the church,” Lacombe said.

“It’s viewed as a deviation rather than a service,” as an extreme expression of devotion, Kirby added. But it’s not really more extreme than other expressions of faith and love. “Marriage is pretty radical, for a man to give up all women for one.”

Another touchy topic that the men in the Office of Vocations cannot avoid is the church’s sex abuse scandal, which has prompted significant organizational and administrative changes, Kirby said.

“It reminds us of what we’re called to be, what we’ve failed to be and what we need to reestablish,” he said. “The goal is to re-establish trust.”

Lacombe said all would-be seminarians are required to watch a video about sexual abuse, adhere to strict guidelines and be completely transparent about their lives.

Williams said the rules help turn disaster into something positive. “It creates order,” he said.

The young men live in the Drexel House, which Williams helped renovate and transform into a men’s residence.

The house, equipped with a chapel, ping-pong table, large kitchen, man cave and several small bedrooms, accommodates upperclassmen, recent graduates and young professionals looking for a sanctified Catholic living environment, one conducive to faithful discernment.

It is from there that Kirby and Williams have launched their vocations operation.

To recruit men and women of faith, they spend a lot of time on the road, visiting schools, parishes and other Catholic institutions throughout South Carolina. Kirby estimates that around 75 percent of his time is spent away from Charleston.

They speak with young Catholics, offer a Mass, participate in ministry events and retreats, organize seminary visits, host dinners and answer questions.

Kirby, who has no parish obligations and can devote himself entirely to his vocations vocation, is, at 36, a young priest able to connect easily with students.

“You’re effective until you reach the age of their parents,” he said, half-joking.

The vetting process is two-way and rigorous, he said. To become a seminary student and enter a religious life, one must feel called to such service. The candidate must share intimate details about his life. He must take time to consider the future carefully, seeking both counsel and prayerful solitude.

And if he should decide at any point during the process, even while enrolled in seminary, to take a different path, Kirby will not be disappointed so long as the decision is informed by sincere faith and trust.

“People think that because there’s a need, there’s desperation,” he said. No, the diocese is not desperate. “We won’t sacrifice quality.”

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.