Issues inside the Catholic church

April 11, 2008 7:48:25 PM PDT
When Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the United States, he will be tackling numerous issues facing the Catholic church.Chief among them are the shortage of priests and the sex abuse scandal.

We went to an American seminary in Rome that is already addressing both.

"You certainly have reactions, and people say my gosh what are you doing?" said 25-year-old Greg Rannazzisi, a third-year seminarian from Rockville Centre, Long Island.

Rannazzissi says even as a child, he always knew he wanted to become a priest.

"Not only do I want to do that, nor do I think I can do that," he said. "I think God wants me to do that."

Three years ago, Greg followed his calling to Rome, far from his family, to study at the North American College, a seminary nestled under the shadow of the Vatican.

"I get to see St. Peter's every day, and it reminds you who and what you are about and what you're aiming for," he said.

And what the church is aiming for is to attract more young men to priesthood. Right now, there is a crisis looming in the Catholic church - aging priests. In fact, the average age is 68. There are simply not enough young men to replace them.

So men coming out of seminaries are forced to take on greater responsibilities, including leading congregations in two to five years. It is a role normally assumed after 20.

"That does require a certain skill set, and it's a bit unnerving at times," Greg said. "But you realize that the work isn't your own."

The priest sex abuse scandal has further contributed to the decline of priests. Critics say Pope Benedict XVI has publicly avoided the subject and, as cardinal, turned a blind eye as offending priests were shuffled from one church to another.

Behind the scenes at many seminaries, the issue is being dealt with in a more in-depth way, unlike under the direction of Pope John Paul II.

There are workshops addressing how priests should behave with children, as well as teaching how to recognize the signs of abuse.

"They even play a video that has some clips of people who have perpetrated the crimes," said Rev. Dennis Yurochko, of North American College. "To help understand the mindset of it, making people be aware and raising issues like not being alone in the room with a child."

According to Rev. Phillip Larrey, a logic professor at Pontifical Laterine University , seminary applicants are also going through a much more grueling screening process, from psychological exams to background checks.

"Some of my seminarian friends tell me that it's very, very demanding," he said. "The psychological testing, the interviews."

For Greg, the troubles facing the Catholic church only drew him closer to his faith.

"I saw something happening in the church, the church that I loved," he said. "And I thought I might very well be an agent of change, in that I might be a positive influence."