Father Bob Stec wakes up at six, ready to tackle God's will. It'll keep him up past midnight. He'll motor throughout the eight counties that make up the Diocese of Cleveland, a cell phone strapped to his side and a question burned into his mind: Where can I find new priests?
In Stec's eyes, everyone has a purpose, a vocation, a calling they must answer. For him, it is the priesthood. What drives Stec is the knowledge that other men are called as he; they just don't recognize it. So his job is to be a farmer for Catholicism, "planting that seed, stirring a thought or an idea," so that new priests may grow.
Stec's radiant face advertises the calling better than words can. He talks about the privilege of hearing confession, where sinners whisper their guilt away. He speaks of the stirring in one's soul when he - and he alone - is welcomed into a home, where a woman with red eyes ushers him to a bed in which an obstinate old man clings to life, refusing to let go till the priest arrives.
But for all his dogged preaching in school gymnasiums and at confirmation retreats, only a few men will enter the seminary each year. "It's frustrating," Stec says, "especially when you find good people. But it's their choice."
By conventional standards, it's not an attractive career. The hours are long, the wages brutal. The work involves nights and weekends, and the boss makes sure one's always on-call. After all, He doesn't want His guys going cheap on the customer service.
There's also the small matter of abdicating wealth and women, family and freedom. It's all part of the job description. Which has made selling the priesthood tougher than ever, even for an enterprise with two millennia under its belt.
In 1970, there were 240 priests under the age of 40 working in the Diocese of Cleveland. By 1980, that number fell to 191. Today, it's 37. And even as the Catholic population has grown - the diocese places membership at 838,000 - the number of priests has shrunk by 30 percent in the last 30 years.
"We've always been counter-culture," Stec says, "but now we're radically counter-culture."
*******When Brian Wolfe was 10, he rolled out of bed every weekday for the 5:30 a.m. Mass, partly because he could expect a trip with Dad to the bakery for doughnuts. He prayed at dinner, prayed before bed, attended every Lent service, and said the rosary with his family.
He became comfortable at the altar, serving Mass at Holy Family in Parma as a fourth-grader. In eighth grade, just before his confirmation ceremony, Wolfe and his classmates were each invited to a one-on-one with the priest.
"He asked me if I had ever thought of becoming a priest," Wolfe recalls. "I said 'No!'" He figured it was a routine question, but when he rejoined his classmates, he asked if they, too, got the priest question. He was the only one, and it made him think.
Wolfe emerged as a youth leader at Holy Name High School, organizing retreats and special Masses. But he was also dating and on the college-prep track; he figured he'd go to Miami of Ohio, study to be an architect. Yet he couldn't shake the idea planted by the priest. When his senior class voted him the winner in the Most Exemplifies Christianity category, he thought about it all the more.
In the spring of his senior year, 17-year-old Wolfe sat down at a table with his father and told him he wanted to enroll at Borromeo, a collegiate seminary, then graduate to St. Mary's. He wanted to become a priest.
The announcement didn't surprise Tim Wolfe. He had seen his son's faith develop, watched how Brian gravitated to leadership positions within the church.