The crowd filling the pews and aisles of the largest Catholic church in the United States witnessed the largest ordination class in Archdiocese of Washington in 64 years, as Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory ordained 16 new priests for the archdiocese during a June 15 Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

It is the archdiocese's largest ordination class since 1960, when 17 men were ordained the year that John F. Kennedy was elected as the nation's first Catholic president.

Besides the Washington Archdiocese, other U.S. archdioceses have seen record ordination classes this spring, including the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, with 13 new priests, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles with 11 and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee with nine.

As the joyful ordination Mass began in Washington, Cardinal Gregory greeted the thousands of people at the National Shrine, saying, "From the heart I welcome you to this wonderful celebration of the Eucharist, wherein the Archdiocese of Washington will receive 16 new priests. We gather as God's people."

The 16 men ordained range in age from 25 to 64 and include a survivor of the 1994 civil war and genocide in his home country of Rwanda, a former emergency room physician, a former District of Columbia police officer, a former supervisor of commercial construction projects, and veterans of the U.S. Navy, Marines and Army, including now-Father Stephen Wong, 62, who came to the U.S. from Jamaica when he was 17 and served with the U.S. Army for four decades, in active military service and then as a civilian.

In his homily, Cardinal Gregory noted that priestly vocations develop over a lifetime, with the encouragement of family and friends, and he thanked them for helping the men about to be ordained to hear and respond to God's call.

The cardinal said priests must continue to develop and deepen that vocation, centering their lives on prayer and the sacraments. The priesthood, he said, reflects the mystery of how "God loves each of us unconditionally and calls us into his friendship."

He encouraged the new priests to "surrender your lives in imitation of the One who poured out his life for us" and told them that "your most important encounter with God's people will be through the Eucharist."

The cardinal also underscored the importance of the new priests offering the sacrament of reconciliation to their people, bringing them Christ's mercy and forgiveness, and availing themselves of that sacrament. He also encouraged the new priests to offer people the sacrament of the anointing of the sick "with a tenderness that assures them that Christ himself is present."

At the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota, roughly 3,500 people packed the pews and filled the aisles to witness Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis ordain 13 men to the priesthood, the most since 15 were ordained in 2005.

Ranging in age from 26 to 48, the men enter the priesthood with a variety of backgrounds and talents, the archbishop noted in his homily May 25.

Father Brent Bowman, 44, for example, was in marketing, business development and product innovation; Father Philip Conklin, 36, was in the Air Force; and Father Derek Gilde, 44, had a 15-year career in social work and mental health.

"How God has prepared us is beyond our imagining," Archbishop Hebda said. "It might still not be clear why the Lord led you to be engineers or air traffic controllers or social workers. "It may not be clear why he gave you a love of diving, running or science. It might not be clear why he gave you a gift for languages or a soulful voice or a gift for Latin and classical languages.

"But I bet that God is going to use them all -- all of those gifts. You bring all of that, all of your history with you today to the altar, and you offer it to the Lord so that he can remind this church of his superabundant love, so that he can feed his flock in abundance."

Referring to a passage in the last chapter of John's Gospel that was read for the Mass -- when the risen Jesus prepares a breakfast of fish for the Apostles and asks St. Peter three times whether Peter loves him -- Archbishop Hebda said Peter's affirmative response is met with Jesus telling Peter to "feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep."

"Those statements reveal Jesus' priority that his beloved flock would always be cared for, that they would be fed," the archbishop said. "I'm not surprised that the church would give us that Gospel on the occasion of an ordination."

"Jesus is the paradigm for what it means to be a shepherd, a pastor, to be pastoral," the archbishop said. "Jesus, the good shepherd, we hear in the Gospel today, wanted to make sure that his beloved sheep would always be fed. And so, he instituted on Holy Thursday both the Eucharist and the priesthood. They go together. They're intimately connected."

It was providential, the archbishop said, that the ordination was happening during the U.S. Church's National Eucharistic Revival, "and indeed, as one of the four National (Eucharistic) Pilgrimages crosses through our archdiocese" on the way to the National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis in July.

In Los Angeles June 1, Archbishop José H. Gomez ordained 11 new priests at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. More than 3,500 invited guests and 260 priests attended the ceremony.

It's the largest number of new priests the archdiocese has had "in several years," according to Father Peter Saucedo, the archdiocese's director of the Office for Vocations, which hosts the ceremony.

The men range in age from 28 to 40, and like their peers in Washington and St. Paul, they come from varied backgrounds. Among them is a former caterer, a former therapist, a former football player who was a coach and a teacher; three were born in Mexico; one is the only child of Vietnamese immigrants; another is the oldest of two sons of immigrant parents from South Korea; and another, the son of Croatian immigrants.

"More and more I am convinced of the need for people to encounter Jesus Christ, with the many challenges that we encounter in life, people are seeking for something more, and these men with their diverse backgrounds and experiences are excited to bring them the only thing that could truly fulfill that desire," the priest said in statement ahead of the ordination Mass. "We ask for your prayers for these men, that they might inspire young people to encounter Christ and consider their vocation."

In his homily, Archbishop Gomez told the 11 men, "As his priests, you will be Christ's servants, stewards of this great mystery of love, which the Father is working out in salvation history. Love is the reason God created the universe. Love is the reason God created you and me, and every one of us here today. And love, my dear brothers, is the reason for your priesthood."

Quoting St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, he said, "The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus."

"In the heart of God there is a deep longing," the archbishop said. "The Father longs for every man and woman to share in his love, and to become sons and daughters in his family, in the kingdom of love that he is building here on earth in his church."

Archbishop Gomez said the new priests "are going to be the leaders of the Eucharistic revival in our times. I think we all recognize that there is something happening in the world today, something exciting. There's a new movement of the Spirit. ... What an exciting time to be a priest!"

On May 18, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee ordained nine men to the priesthood at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.

"Through your actions as priests and the celebration of the sacraments, the preaching of the Word and your acts of charity, God's grace will shape and form the communities you serve," the archbishop said in his homily. "Our Catholics need the shepherding of ordained priests to support and direct them, for you know as I do that true happiness can never be achieved apart from God, and we know who is the way, the truth and the life that has been given to us."

The Catholic Herald, Milwaukee's archdiocesan news outlet reported that the archbishop concluded his homily with seven words "he promised would assure them happiness in their priesthood: 'Faithfully serve Jesus Christ in his church.'"