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The Deacon's Bench

After crinkling my nose and rolling my eyes over the McGreevey story, I was heartened to come across this sunny bit of news from the Sunshine State — one parish that has produced five, yes five, vocations:

Beth Burwell wrestled with the question of whether she could forego having a husband or children.

The answer came to her while visiting a Bronx, N.Y., convent where nuns help single mothers with unwanted pregnancies.

“I held a little girl who had been born at the convent, and I welled up with tears recognizing this little girl might not have been,” the 22-year-old from Satellite Beach said in an e-mail. “But God called a group of wonderful women to sacrifice their own marriages and children so that they could help this little girl’s mother to say ‘yes’ to life, ‘yes’ to motherhood, ‘yes’ to this precious gift.”

Burwell, a University of Central Florida graduate, left a week ago to join the convent of the Sisters of Life and dedicate her life to the Roman Catholic religious order. She was one of five parishioners of Holy Name of Jesus Church in Indialantic, ranging in age from 18 to 34, to enter religious life in recent months, defying a national trend that has seen the ranks of the Catholic Church in the United States grow thinner and grayer.

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in 1965 there were 58,132 priests serving 46.6 million U.S. Catholics — or about one for every 802 parishioners — compared to 43,302 priests serving 64.3 million Catholics — one per 1,485 — in 2004.

Convents have fared just as badly, raising questions about who will staff the Catholic schools and hospitals that had traditionally been their domain.

“The crisis is still ongoing,” said the Rev. David Page, the 75-year-old pastor of Holy Name. “It’s a crisis in many places and there are many more priests over 70 than under 40. It’s a big concern. If that trend continues, how will people receive the sacrament? There is a tremendous need.”

Holy Name, on State Road A1A just south of the Eau Gallie Causeway in unincorporated Indialantic, has become an anomaly of sorts. In addition to the five parishioners who plan to take vows, another three entered religious life in recent years.

“It’s very unusual, especially for one parish to see this happen,” said Page, a native of Ireland.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington D.C., called the news “astounding.” But she also said vocations seem to be cyclical.

“After World War II, there was a spike in vocations,” she said, adding that, by the Vietnam War, people were questioning everything, including religion and the church. That’s when she said the priest shortage worsened.

Two other Brevard County Catholic churches also boast a new seminarian each, but none has reached Holy Name’s numbers. Holy Name credits a successful teen program and youth ministry that sometimes sees a standing-room-only crowd at the Sunday night teen mass.

Check out the rest of the article for more on this surprising uptick in vocations.

Photo: Beth Burwell, by Tim Shortt, Florida Today

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