Jozef Ukaj is silent in the chapel St. Ann’s Church in Yonkers, mindful not to jangle the keys he’s holding or speak above a whisper even though the chapel is empty as he turns on the lights.
Last week Ukaj, 27, was preparing to do something he never would have imagined growing up in Kosovo and Germany: entering the seminary and starting the eight-year journey toward becoming an ordained priest.
Ukaj said he started going to church again about two years ago after not going to church at all for the seven years before.
“There wasn’t one specific moment, more of an inherent feeling… just something in my heart that I heard,” Ukaj said.
Then, about a year and a half ago, he started contemplating becoming a priest, and three months ago took the plunge and decided to join the seminary. He's expecting to spend the next eight years in school, the first four working toward his bachelor's of philosophy at St. John's University, and the last four on his master's of theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in his hometown of Yonkers.
“It was more of a relief, not a shock, because I did not want this, I had been fighting this for about a year and a half. Once I actually gave in, I felt a heavy burden lifted,” Ukaj said of his recent decision.
Ukaj said his family and friends have been overwhelmingly supportive of his decision, and that he’s starting his journey much sooner than the usual year-long process to enter the seminary.
“God has his own schedule … it’s not for me to decide,” Ukaj said. He moved in to the Immaculate Conception Seminary on Friday.
Ukaj and the other young men in his class are part of a rise in men joining the seminary in New York City. Last year, the Archdiocese of New York ordained 12 men as priests.
“It is our biggest number of new priests in years,” said Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the archdiocese. “We continue to work to make the number even higher, but we have noticed something of an upswing.”
A study published in 2012 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found 12 percent of unmarried Catholic men and 10 percent of unmarried Catholic women said they considered being a priest or nun “a little bit seriously.” And, of the millennials surveyed, 13 percent of men and eight percent of women had considered the vocation.
In Philadelphia, where Pope Francis will host the World Meeting of Families next month, priesthood is on the rise as well.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia said earlier this month that enrollment is up 21 percent since last year, rising to 145 new students at St. Charles Seminary from 120 in 2014, a rise they attribute in part to the pope’s visit.
“I don’t know if it’s anything Pope Francis said that caught my ear, but maybe through his leadership, through his prayer, I got the inspiration, who knows,” Ukaj said. “Catholicism means ‘universal,’ so I think it’s universal prayer that help young men discern, not one specific person.”
Ukaj said he and his priests-to-be brothers are promised a spot when Pope Francis celebrate mass at Madison Square Garden on Sept. 25.
“I’m excited,” Ukaj said. “He’s a good speaker, a gentle man and he has the best interest of people in mind.”