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."
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.
A few days later, they resumed the conversation. Brian told his father how he admired the way Dad's work benefited each member of their family, but Brian wanted his career to benefit more than just a single family. He believed it his destiny.
"That was much more profound than I expected to hear from a 17-year-old," Tim recalls.
But the reaction of their parish spoke to the state of Catholicism and the stature of the priesthood. Some congratulated the Wolfes. Others disapproved.
"I was amazed at all the good Catholic families with children, who, when they found out about Brian entering the priesthood, were against it," Tim says. "There were people who suggested that we were not giving Brian the proper guidance."
Wolfe graduated from Holy Name, broke up with his girlfriend, and entered Borromeo, then St. Mary's, to embrace the nine-year process of becoming ordained. He fell into the routine of morning prayer, breakfast, class, lunch, class, dinner, and evening Mass. It was "like a fraternity," he says, sans the kegerator and panties nailed to the wall. He played intramural sports, hung out, and clicked away at Madden football on Nintendo 64.
Wolfe's dark hair is gelled, bangs plucked up. He dresses in the casual style of a college man-khaki pants, seersucker shirts-who wants to display taste, but not try too hard. His is a look more player than priest.
Within his circle of friends-most of whom attend Ohio colleges-Wolfe is the "counselor." Women tell him about their boyfriend problems, guys talk about their women woes, and female friends can't help but tease him. They call him "Father What-a-Waste," a compliment to his looks, if not his calling.
"I said, 'That doesn't really speak well of my vocation,'" laughs Wolfe. "Girls always tell me, 'You could be married and have a family. You'd make a great dad.' Yeah, maybe, but I've been called to something else."
At 22, Wolfe is the youngest member of St. Mary's Seminary, the five-year graduate school that precedes ordination. The elder members - many are middle-aged - marvel at his even hormonal keel and his poise in "accepting the call" before sowing his wild oats.
He's three years away from his vow of celibacy, after which he is to be chaste in all actions.
"I've kind of accepted not having a girlfriend," he says. "I've put that in the past. Of course, I still think about it, but it's not something serious. There's still times - just being young-when you wish you were more 'normal,' that you fit into the crowd. But this is where I'm supposed to be . . . Even though I still find girls attractive, I have to keep it in perspective."
To Wolfe, the greatest challenge in celibacy is not the exclusion of sex, but the impossibility of a wife, son, or daughter. Yet he believes in the rules. They ensure he will favor no member over others while serving a parish, even though dropping the tradition would make the commitment less daunting and likely bolster seminary enrollment.
His is a sense of sacrifice not often linked to his generation, but it's shared by fellow seminarian Mark Monahan, 24. As other collegians flocked to Daytona for spring break, Monahan flew to a church in El Salvador, where farm animals grazed in the aisles.
Though their generation hasn't shown an affinity for religion, Wolfe and Monahan nonetheless defend their peers. There is spirituality, they say; it's just not professed so openly. As for those without, that's why the two men study - so that they may "bring God to people."
"Our families are smaller than they used to be," says Pilla. "When families had 10 kids, having a priest, a doctor, a lawyer, that was normal stuff. Now, if you only have one son, who's going to carry the family name? Who's going to give them grandchildren? So when we're recruiting, we're not recruiting from such a huge pool."
The church doesn't pluck from the shallow end of the pool, either. It needs men with the intellectual capacity for years of study, the charisma to conjure the Holy Spirit in the flock.
"For men of that ability, they have a lot of professions to choose from, and the material rewards of those professions are significant," Pilla says. "We're asking a very talented person to give all that up, and in our culture, where money determines success, people see the priesthood as a waste."
"Celibacy is a real challenge in our culture," Pilla says. "And pop psychology questions the wisdom of that choice, because sexual, physical, and genital expression is what this culture believes is the epitome of normal, healthy behavior."
But the report from the recruiting trail-via Father Stec-is that celibacy is not nearly the deterrent that a general fear of commitment is. Many a young man has scurried from Stec's office when the subject of commitment is raised.
"Twentysomethings, much less teens, have a phenomenally difficult time with commitment. They can't even decide what to do on a Saturday night," Stec says. He tries to tell them that there's tranquillity to be had in making that commitment. It usually takes some convincing.
The trend against commitment shows up in the increasing number of divorces, in how couples cohabit, then get married later-or not at all, Pilla says. And those who renege on commitment get off guilt-free-very much a no-no under the laws of Catholicism.
"Fidelity, if you watch TV and read, it's not necessarily something a lot of people prize, cherish, or uphold," Pilla says. "They want to be free"-the bishop flaps his hands and frowns-"free to just do it. There aren't any rules. The rule is, if it's pleasurable, do it. In that kind of context, a permanent commitment is hard to make."
The bishop does his best not to sound cynical or bitter. The '50s and '60s were, he admits, too repressive. But he insists the modern age isn't repressive enough. "It's a crass and in many ways coarse culture."
Even if he knows the church must change with the times, Pilla makes a distinction between evolving and degenerating. He thinks the church should hold its moral ground. After all, the institution has survived criticism before.
Martin Luther had exactly 95 objections to the church. King Henry VIII wasn't keen on that no-divorce clause. There have been holy wars, inquisitions, and corrupt popes.
"So many of our values are counter-cultural that people see us as irrelevant and not with the times," Pilla says. "If I had a nickel for every time somebody said, 'Get with it, Bishop Pilla, it's the 21st century . . .' But I just smile at that. We've been around for 2,000 years, and there's not many things-especially here in the United States-that can relate to a 2,000-year tradition."
There's been pressure to drop the celibacy rule and to allow for female ministers. Pilla says debating these issues is a waste of breath. "There are laws that we as Catholics perceive as being of divine origin," he says. "We believe we don't have the authority to change them."
This, of course, leads some to believe the church is copping a holier-than-thou attitude. It's a perception that makes Catholicism a sitting duck for scandals, the most popular of which are stories painting the priesthood as a repository for perverts.
Father Donald Cozzens, rector of St. Mary's, learned of the media appetite for priestly sex when he read the reviews of his book, The Changing Face of the Priesthood, published last year. In one chapter, Cozzens acknowledged that there were closeted gays in the profession, and he quoted a few studies that tried to pin down a percentage. Estimates range between 15 and 60 percent.
"All of a sudden, Cozzens is saying half the seminarians tend to be gay," he says of the media spin on his book. "Of course, the majority of the book is about priests struggling with their professional identity, but that's not as racy as gay priests."
Such public-image beatings have left church leaders frustrated. In his book, Cozzens suggests the sexual controversies have scared young men away from the vocation. At the least, it's given them one more reason to discard thought of a parish career.