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The cost of clergy

Father Brian Bashista always makes sure his seminarians write their "thank you" cards.

The 32 men have a lot to be thankful for, after all, seeing as how their time of studying and discernment in the seminary is funded nearly completely by the Bishop's Lenten Appeal (BLA) - in other words, you.

To be exact, the education of 24 men (nine at the pre-theology level and 14 at theology), is 100 percent BLA-funded; the education of the six at the college level is only 50 percent subsidized.

Father Bashista, the director of the Vocations Office, said the money donated to the BLA by the people of the Arlington Diocese is an "expression of their love and affection" for those studying for the priesthood.

"There's a reciprocal offering and receiving," Father Bashista said. "It's an expression of the people of God saying, 'We want to enter this kind of spiritual courtship with you, and we want to support you with our prayers and our financial resources.'"

The BLA, the main source of funding for programs, ministries and offices coordinated by the Arlington Diocese, collected more than $11.4 million in pledges in 2008, according to diocesan financial reports. According to Timothy Cotnoir, diocesan finance officer, the Vocations Office receives the single largest chunk allotted for one department - 12 percent - of that $11.4 million. That money pays for the approximately $30,000 annual cost for educating each seminarian, including tuition, room and board, health insurance and a $750 stipend for books and travel to and from the seminary. Multiply that by 32 seminarians and things add up quickly.

The men studying for the priesthood are responsible for all personal expenses, such as food, clothing, cell phone bills, car insurance and entertainment - and must tighten their purse strings to live on their meager allotted income.

"We have to be good stewards of our own personal resources, and they need to learn that in the seminary," Father Bashista said. "Sometimes their wants are postponed, but that's not unlike what will await them as a parish priest."

Not allowed to work due to the demands of school and discernment, all seminarians receive an income of at least $1,000 each year from diocesan Knights of Columbus councils to defray personal expenses, and summer assignments pay approximately $2,400. The Knights of Columbus aid their cause by offering individual seminarians financial support via the Refund Support Vocations Program. Since 1981, the Knights have donated more than $34 million to offset the personal expenses of those studying for the priesthood.

"This program allows seminarians to use their own good judgment and decide how best the money can be applied to support themselves personally as well as their educational needs," said Peter Sonski, director of public relations for the Knights.

Arlington seminarians attend St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa.; Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio; Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md.; St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colo.; Pontifical North American College in Rome; and Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass. If a man determines that he is not called to the priesthood during his time at the seminary, he is not obligated to pay back any of the cost.

"Guys are afforded an incredibly generous opportunity to discern their vocation," Father Bashista said. "I've seen the guys respond to that and I think that it motivates them to be the best seminarian they can be. They're not going to slack off on a class because they know the money is coming from someone else."

Of course money isn't the only thing given to seminarians by the people of Arlington, Father Bashista said. Support is manifested in the Christmas cards sent and, most importantly, the prayers offered up.

"The people of God are sacrificing their financial resources and also their time in prayer," Father Bashista said. "It really is a mutual sacrificial, loving relationship."

Gretchen R. Crowe can be reached at gcrowe@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970