Ultimately, it was "a calling in my heart," says Kevin Fox.
He walked away from his electrical engineering degree and a job in his field, working with CT scanners, to enter St. Mary Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio, in his home diocese, Cleveland, this fall.
"I always had an inkling that I might want to be a priest and my parish priest told me he thought I might be called," said Fox, 24. "But I put it aside."
With a fresh degree from Case Western Reserve and his first post-graduation job, Fox soon realized the secular path "wasn't filling my soul with joy."
Now, after years of pure science, Fox is immersed in pure theology – and loving it. The challenges of the culture, such as crude jokes from strangers about the abuse crisis, have not dissuaded him.
"I feel the church has done a great deal to deal with (preventing) abuse and the seminary took a lot of care in screening and training us to make sure we are the good guys," Fox said.
Fox is one of 72 students currently enrolled in the undergraduate and graduate programs at St. Mary, the highest number in decades, said the Rev. Mark Latcovich, president and rector.
Latcovich credits encouraging current seminarians and priests who are "our best recruiters. If they are happy and witnessing their faith and opening their hearts, that enthusiasm and joy is contagious."
Young men today "want to give their life for something that counts. These men are tired of living in a culture of relativism. They want to say there must be something true, beautiful and good. They have discovered the beauty of God," said Latcovich.
Monsignor Craig Cox, rector of St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, Calif., said the upward trend leading to their current record class of 92 graduate seminarians began six years ago.
He also cited "a renewal of idealism," a stronger push for vocations by priests and bishops, and "receding damage" from the abuse crisis.
Cox, who sat in on admission discussions, says his students are drawn from Southern California to Las Vegas and range in age from 22 to 45. While they're younger than previous classes, they bring "a great level of maturity" to get through a rigorous admissions process.
"Ultimately, I believe that the Spirit is at work," Cox said.
CARA's new statistical look at the church shows the seminary-to-priesthood patterns and other shifts in American Catholic life:
• Annual ordinations have inched back up to the 1995 level of 511 new priests, still far below the peak of 994 in 1965.