Charleston Diocese maintains strict standards for priests

By Eric

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- The preparation for the priesthood is a constant challenge for the Catholic Church.

The diocese of Charleston has an application for seminary, and{}it begins the process that leads to becoming a priest and it can take as long as eight months. It's then followed by at least six years of schooling.

It's a long process by any other application's standards and sometimes only 25 percent of men who apply are accepted. It makes it difficult when there's an increasing shortage of priests, but the diocese said it must focus on quality over quantity.

Every year Catholic priests from across the state gather in Charleston to renew promises of faith. They held mass Tuesday at St. John the Baptist Cathedral. Priests recall vows first taken when they were first ordained. But there are fewer priests today in the Charleston diocese, about 60 to serve nearly 200,000 Catholics.

The pressure to recruit young men is a reality for the diocese, so is the struggle to maintain standards.

"The application process for the seminary will never lessen in its demands and the quality will never be sacrificed for quantity," said Father Jeff Kirby.

Father Kirby said the church learned a lesson in the mid-2000s when it allowed the quality to drop. It was in the middle of sexual abuse allegations that surfaced in parishes nationwide.

To avoid a repeat, Kirby said the application process is as intense as ever.

"Does that affect the way in which we evaluate candidates now? Oh yes, it does," he said. "Was that there before? Certainly. Did it have the attention it does now? No."

Candidates are submitted to months of psychological and behavioral evaluation to identify potential shortcomings. Men are challenged to acknowledge their highest highs and lowest lows.

Rhett Williams is a Charleston native in seminary school in Washington, D.C.

"That's part of the calling, part of the discernment," said Williams. "If you go through the whole application process, which is intense, but it's well explained to you, you know exactly what's going on. If you make it through that's part of your discernment process."

Williams called the process crucial. Our culture's view of the priesthood, he said, even some unfavorable perceptions, only reinforce his calling.

"I think it becomes really a driving force because if someone feels the call, God's calling them," he said. "I don't see it as a deterring factor at all, especially not here at the seminary, it really is a call to be better and serve the people."

The Charleston Diocese covers the entire state of South Carolina.{} Four percent of the state's population is Roman Catholic.