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'I'm not going to see Pearl Jam anymore'; seminarians prepare for life as priests

John Makely / NBC News

Danny Peterson is a seminarian attending the Immaculate Conception Seminary located on the Seton Hall University campus in South Orange, N.J.

Half a world away from where Catholic cardinals gathered this week to elect Pope Francis, men who hope to do the daily work of the faith woke up at the Immaculate Conception Seminary in South Orange, N.J., and met for pre-sunrise prayers.

Fifty-seven aspiring priests from around the world live in the seminary on the campus of Seton Hall University. They will spend from six to eight years undergoing the process of formation before becoming full priests in the archdiocese of Newark, which has 238 parishes over four counties.

Afflicted by scandal and battling decreased enthusiasm in the United States and Europe, the church will rely on men such as these in coming decades to maintain the faith. The pope himself alluded the challenges on Friday, urging cardinals to never "give in to the pessimism, to that bitterness, that the devil places before us every day."

Danny Peterson, of Richmond, Va., knows most of his peers do not want to become men of the cloth. A surfer who studied international affairs, the 28-year-old used to pack an ice chest of beers for football games and concerts. No longer.

“I’m not going to see Pearl Jam anymore,” Peterson says. “Those days are over.” Peterson sees himself in what he calls the “John Paul II generation” – a cohort of younger Catholics inspired by the charismatic deceased pontiff. At 14, he saw John Paul II at a World Youth Day celebration in Rome. He’s traveled all over the world, from Haiti to Ecuador to the Czech Republic. This winter, he sold his old surfboard for $400 to fund a ski trip – a hefty sum considering he stretches out two stipends of $500 each year.

Becoming a priest was always on the table in his large Catholic family which includes five older brothers and sisters, Peterson said. His father briefly spent time in the seminary before meeting Peterson’s mother. His family has supported his choice, he said. He’s heard other reactions from friends, including: “You’re an effing idiot.”

“It’s hard here,” Peterson said of the seminary life. “We don’t have a lot of money. The room is the size of a closet. If I didn’t think I was called to do it I would have left already.”

John Makely / NBC News

Nelson Oyola, a seminarian attending the Immaculate Conception Seminary, sets the chapel up for an afternoon mass.

The average age for new priests in 2012 was nearly 35, according to a review conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Thirty percent of new priests were born outside the United States. More than half had more than two siblings.

American-born and opinionated, Peterson is one model for what the next wave of American priests may look like. Nelson Oyola, 31, is another.

Oyola’s day begins with a class quiz on the laws of the church. There are heads with more than a few gray hairs in his classes, and several Spanish speakers.

Oyola knew little English when he left his village outside Bogota, Colombia, nine years ago to pursue his dream of becoming a priest. Now, dressed all in black with a white roman collar that seminarians are allowed to wear only on campus, the soft-spoken student searches carefully for the right word.

“God was calling me to serve here,” Oyola says. “It was something in me. I always saw myself celebrating Mass.” As with many priests, the voices of loved ones also helped when choosing a life that includes celibacy, little money, and late-night visits to hospital beds.

John Makely / NBC News

Peterson prepares for class.

Encouraged by his grandmother and a young local priest named Father Julian, Oyola never felt that aspiring to become a priest was a strange ambition for a young man.

Oyola had five girlfriends in high school. It’s good for a priest to know what it’s like to be a in a relationship, he said. The last girlfriend broke up with him as they approached the age young people often marry in Colombia. She knew his heart was set on the priesthood.

The Spanish-speaking congregations he has met at churches like St. Francis de Sales in Lodi and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Jersey City remind Oyola of home. At one point recently, there were 15 Colombians among the seminarians in South Orange. Every time a new Colombian arrives, he is brought by the group to the Statue of Liberty, Oyola said.

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That God has called him to serve so far away from home does not make leaving his parents and two older brothers in Colombia any easier: “Every time the plane leaves, it feels like your heart stays on the ground.”

“That’s something that’s always on my mind,” Oyola said. “What if I don’t get to spend any time with them any more?” When he saw his cousin’s newborn, he wondered what a baby of his own would look like. “But I live with joy and no regrets,” Oyola said.

As the seminarians lined up to engage in a special vigil they held for as long as the conclave continued, they were aware that the church’s problems – ongoing revelations of sex abuse, a top-secret dossier on corruption in the church – would not go away with a new pope. The seminarians gathered around a big-screen TV to watch Pope Francis’ first appearance on Wednesday, Peterson said.

“We used to say that Latin America was the hope for the Catholic church,” Oyola said. “Now I realize that maybe we are not the hope anymore. We are the present.”

Cardinals from around the world gather in the Vatican to elect the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church.