On Seminarian Day, when Cardinal Donald Wuerl held personal meetings with 60 of the Archdiocese of Washington’s 89 seminarians, he later joined that group for Mass at the Saint John Paul II Seminary, where he said he appreciated the opportunity to share their vocational journey that will eventually lead to the altar for those ordained to the priesthood.

“We make this journey together,” he said, encouraging them to open their hearts to Christ. “…Each one of you has heard a call.”

The cardinal added that “one of the great joys of this day is seeing successive classes (of seminarians) get closer and closer to ordination.”

After the Aug. 3 Mass, the cardinal, the seminarians and the seminary’s rector and vice-rector were indeed led to the altar, but for a group photo, when a sudden downpour prevented the planned picture usually taken outside on the steps at the seminary’s entranceway.

Earlier that afternoon, Msgr. Robert Panke, the archdiocese’s director of priest formation and the rector of its Saint John Paul II Seminary in Washington, said the group of seminarians is the largest that the archdiocese has had in many years. And the number will probably top 90 this fall, when a few more new seminarians are expected to join the Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary in Hyattsville.

“It can only be the grace of God,” he said, adding, “It’s certainly a sign of hope.”

Reflecting on this year’s archdiocesan seminarians – who come from urban, suburban and rural parishes across the archdiocese, and also from across the United States and from around the world, from many different backgrounds – the priest noted, “Their hearts have all been touched by the love of Christ in some way, and in receiving that love, there’s a desire to serve Him and His Church.”

He added, “The thing I see is a generosity of spirit that’s the common element among a really varied group of individuals.”

Msgr. Panke, who also serves as the archdiocese’s director of priest formation, has been involved in vocations work for the past 17 years, including as priest vocations director from 2001 until 2011, when he became the seminary’s rector. This year, the Saint John Paul II Seminary is again filled to capacity, with 53 seminarians residing there, including 32 from the archdiocese.

“It’s a privilege to play some small part in forming and helping bring forth the next generation of priests who will serve the Church of Washington and provide the love of God, the sacraments, the service of the poor, and whatever else is asked of them, to be part of the New Evangelization, to accompany people on their journey to God, as Pope Francis has been encouraging and proclaiming all these years,” he said.

Father Carter Griffin, the seminary’s vice-rector and dean of students, said the large size of this year’s seminary class shows “we have a culture of vocations in this archdiocese which has parish priests, family members and Catholic schools encouraging young men and women to discern their vocation.”

When asked what this year’s group of archdiocesan seminarians have in common, Father Griffin said, “They share a deep love above all for the Lord, and a desire to follow His will, and a desire to serve the Church and the people of God faithfully and seriously.”

Msgr. Panke praised the work of Father Mark Ivany, the head of the archdiocese’s Office of Priest Vocations, in fostering that culture of vocations.

Father Ivany, for his part, said several factors have contributed to the increase of men discerning the priesthood. He noted the leadership and support of Cardinal Wuerl, who attends vocations events, including retreats and dinners, throughout the year, and keeps in touch with the seminarians, as he did in his personal meetings on Seminary Day.

The vocations director also noted the “almost unparalleled support” that the archdiocese’s priests offer in supporting and promoting vocations.

“They believe they really are the vocations director in their parish,” he said. “So many priests take that seriously and cultivate an environment of discernment.”

The faithful and loving example of families in helping plant the seeds of vocations was acknowledged at the archdiocese’s 12th annual Seminarian Family Day on July 28. And this year, two of the archdiocese’s 17 new seminarians are the nephews of priests of the Archdiocese of Washington: James Fangmeyer, the nephew of Father Lee Fangmeyer, the pastor of Mother Seton Parish in Germantown; and Vincent Vu, the nephew of two priests who are brothers serving as pastors in Southern Maryland – Father Paul Nguyen of St. George Parish in Valley Lee and Father John Nguyen of Our Lady’s Church at Medley’s Neck.

Father Ivany also noted the vocations support of principals and teachers at local Catholic schools. Some diocesan priests visit the local Catholic high schools they once attended to encourage current students to think and pray about God’s plan for their lives. He said homeschooling parents have also been very supportive of vocations and in encouraging their children to consider the priesthood or religious life.

He also praised the vocations work being done by youth ministers, including at summer programs in Rockville and at St. John’s Parish in Hollywood, Maryland.

The priest said groups like the Serra Club and the Mother Teresa Vocations Society offer prayerful support for vocations, as do the faithful throughout the archdiocese, including people in their homes, parishes and schools, who pray by name for the archdiocese’s seminarians during the year.

Those prayers offer a source of strength and encouragement for the seminarians. This year’s large group of archdiocesan seminarians, said Father Ivany, share a spirit of joy, along with “a desire to serve and a great love for the sacraments.”