LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - While the Catholic Church struggles worldwide to overcome a shortage of priests, Arkansas is seeing something quite different. In fact, the state is seeing a surge in our number of aspiring church leaders.
Father Francis Malone told THV11 that Arkansas is seeing more young men commit to the church than ever before. Inside the King Catholic Church's walls are some of Arkansas' most devoted Catholics, known in the church as seminarians.
"These are men who have signed up to study for the priesthood for the Diocese of Little Rock, which encompasses the whole state of Arkansas," explained Father Frances Malone.
Forty-one men make up this year's class; it is the largest ever for the Little Rock Diocese and is a drastic increase from just eight years ago when the state had only 15 seminarians.
"We're no longer bashful or afraid to ask young men, 'Do you hear the voice of the lord calling you as a possible vocation as a priest?'" said Father Malone.
"I would say it started when I started asking myself, 'What does God want me to do with my life?'" explained Jeff Hebert, a former med school student, who is now part of the surge in Catholic priest hopefuls here in Arkansas. "There's a brotherhood of the seminarians. I really feel like all these guys are my brothers and that really helps, too, because I feel like we're all going through the same struggles."
One of the struggles is learning a new language. With Hispanics making up more than half of the state's Catholic population, all priests must now be fluent in Spanish.
"They bring so much culture and faith to the diocese that it doesn't make sense for a man to be ordained in the priesthood only to serve half of the people," he said.
Vocation's director Scott Friend said Arkansas is now one of the top ten states in regards to the ratio of seminarians to Catholics.
"Vocations are up across the board in the south surprisingly where it seems statistics show that in areas where there have been a traditional large number of Catholics, that's where they're having a lot more of a struggle," said Monsignor Friend.
Msgnr. Friend added that four of the seminarians will be ordained in the next year.