Father Ben Shehzad has plenty of willing young men ready to become priests, but no place to put them
by Kara Hansen
LEAWOOD —Imagine there being so many young men interested in studying for the priesthood that some of the potential seminarians have to be turned away. That is exactly the problem facing the Archdiocese of Karachi in Pakistan.
Since 2005, Father Ben Shehzad has been dealing with that embarrassment of riches as rector of St. Pius X Seminary in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and commercial capital. But before Father Ben became the rector at St. Pius X, he was a familiar face around Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood. Since 2003, when he started working on an advanced theology degree in Rome, Father Ben had come to Curé of Ars each summer to help out with pastoral duties.
Once he finished his degree, Father Ben was offered a full scholarship to begin work on a doctorate — but his archdiocese needed him more. When he returned to Pakistan, he was named rector of St. Pius X Seminary, one of only four minor (or preparatory) seminaries in the country.
“I remember being really upset when Ben was not able to take advantage of that opportunity [to undertake doctoral work],” said Msgr. Charles McGlinn, pastor of Curé of Ars. “But he was very humble and obedient to his bishop, and now I see that decision was exactly right. If the church is to have a future in Karachi, they must have a minor seminary.”
Though less common these days in the United States, a minor seminary is important in a country like Pakistan. The basic educational foundation it provides is important to students aspiring to undertake theological studies in a major seminary. The future of the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Karachi looked much bleaker in terms of vocations just a short time ago. Only four priests have been ordained for the Archdiocese of Karachi since 1991.
It is estimated that there is only one priest for every 12,000 Catholics in the largely Muslim city of Karachi. The average age of active priests in the archdiocese is 80, said Karachi archbishop Everest Pinto during a June 30 visit to Curé parishioners.
“Our parishes are expanding in population and size, but there are no priests to serve them,” said Archbishop Pinto. Things are starting to look up, however. Four years ago, when Father Ben started as rector of St. Pius X, there were only nine seminarians; now there are 21. Several who wanted to join in the past year had to be turned away because of lack of space at the small seminary.
This year, six seminarians moved on to major seminary and are scheduled to be ordained in three years. “We have three more years until their ordination, but after that there will be subsequent ordinations each year,” said Archbishop Pinto. Parishioners at Curé have been supporting the seminary since Father Ben took over in 2005.
“When Ben came back to help here in the summer after his first year as rector, the conditions at the seminary sounded awful — food was poor, there was not much space, and he had very little staff. He asked us for help and we’ve been supporting him ever since,” said Msgr. McGlinn. Several parishioners participate in a sponsorship program, through which they provide sustained support to a specific seminarian at St. Pius X. Other donations have assisted the seminary with everything from teacher salaries to food.
“Before Curé got involved, several of our meals a day were just rice. Now our students have meat, a fruit or a vegetable with our meals. We are also able to have more teachers and provide a better education,” said Father Ben. As the population of the fourbedroom seminary swelled to 21 students this year, plans have been made to erect a new building for St. Pius X — one that can more comfortably house the current number of seminarians and provide room to grow. The original idea was actually born of a conversation between Father Ben and Msgr. McGlinn last summer.
“Ben was telling me how there were more and more students wanting to come to seminary, but there was no room for them,” said Msgr. McGlinn. “I said, ‘Why don’t you build a new seminary?’” The idea took off. In April, ground was broken on a new site for the seminary. The new space will have room to accommodate 40 to 50 students with more living space, areas for recreation, and classroom space — all of which are sorely lacking in the current seminary. The building budget of the new seminary is $500,000, with a signifi- cant amount of support coming from parishioners of Curé. Half the funding is already in place.