ROME—Future American parish priests studying in Rome are cheering the choice of a pontiff forged in the image of the only pope they've ever known.
Yet when the seven American cardinals who run dioceses were asked Wednesday how Pope Benedict XVI will help them recruit new candidates for the priesthood and keep them from closing parishes, there weren't many concrete answers.
Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida, who's expected to announce a spate of church closings in Detroit and its suburbs this year because of the chronic shortage of priests, said the pope, "with all his gifts and talents, and even with some of his shortcomings," will inspire vocations by touching "the hearts and minds of people."
Washington, D.C., Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said Benedict will continue John Paul II's legacy of reaching out to young people, who "will recognize that and respond to it and, therefore, vocations will be coming."
The American cardinals spoke Wednesday at the Pontifical North American College, a leading school for American Roman Catholic seminarians.
New York City Cardinal Edward Egan said he spoke with future parish priests after the conclusion of the papal conclave on Tuesday night.
"They were exultant. They were shouting, `Thank you,'" Egan said of the seminarians' reaction to the selection of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany.
Jason Parzynski, 24, a Michigan State University graduate who's studying in Rome for the Diocese of Lansing, was among the cheering seminarians.
"We've just grown up with John Paul II, taken on his views and his approach to things," Parzynski said Wednesday. "Ratzinger was the personal theologian to John Paul II, and he'll carry on."
Said seminarian Daniel Wathen, 25, of Billings, Mont., "My generation—Catholics who've only known one pope—we were looking for someone who's authentic."
For a long time, Catholic leaders in the United States declined to discuss the priest shortage publicly, though the problem has been building for nearly four decades. In recent years, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops began studying the impact of the thinning ranks, though no clear solution emerged.
The 2004 Official Catholic Directory, the standard reference on church statistics, says about 44,200 priests served 67 million Catholics in the United States last year, compared with 50,200 priests serving 66 million Catholics in 1994.
In the past, Ratzinger has suggested that the declining priesthood can be attributed more to social changes than to the church's fundamental teaching that ordination be reserved for single, celibate men.
"If today the average number of children is 1.5, the question of possible priests takes on a very different form from what it was in ages when families were considerably larger," Ratzinger said in 1997. "And there are also very different expectations in families. Today we are experiencing that the main obstacles to the priesthood often come from parents. They have very different expectations for their children.
"Looked at relative to the number of children and the number of those who are believing churchgoers, the number of priestly vocations has probably not decreased at all," Ratzinger continued. "In this sense, one has to take the proportion into account. The first question, then, is: Are there believers? And only then comes the second question: Are priests coming from them?"
The priest shortage in the United States is mirrored in Western Europe. While nearly every block in central Rome is home to a historic church, the city's outskirts are growing, with projections calling for 90 new parishes and priests needed to run them. Italy is importing priests to staff parishes, such as the Rev. Alexander Ospina, 30, from Medellin, Colombia, who runs a rural church between Rome and Naples.
"We are missionaries here because Italy has few priests," he said while visiting the Vatican last week.
Pope Benedict's top concern will be that there is "no abandonment or no blurring" of a priest's core identity, said John L. Allen Jr., the Vatican bureau chief of the National Catholic Reporter.
The pope may find more priests for parishes by downsizing the Vatican bureaucracy, Allen said, noting that Benedict is a "classic conservative" with "an innate distrust of bureaucracy," though he headed the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for 24 years.
The remedies that the pope will come up with to address the priest shortage won't be "ordaining women or getting rid of celibacy," Allen said.
American priests in Rome spoke often of how their call to the priestly life was nurtured at World Youth Day celebrations headlined by Pope John Paul II in Denver in 1993 and Toronto in 2002. The elevation of the German cardinal to the papacy also coincides with a World Youth Day scheduled in August in Cologne, Germany.
After the Rev. Steve Lopes, 30, returns to San Francisco this summer, one of his roles will be as director of clergy education. At his ordination in 2001, he said most of those in his class of new priests also had attended the World Youth Day in Denver.
Lopes has no doubt that the immense worldwide interest in Pope John Paul II's funeral and the papal transition will benefit the Catholic clergy's thinning ranks. "You have this sense that God was guiding it," Lopes said. "Yes, vocations will come of it."
(Knight Ridder correspondent David Crumm contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): POPE
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050420 Pope poll
Need to map