With college and high school graduations fresh in the memory, thousands of area students are emerging into the “real world” looking for a calling.

“What am I called to do? It’s a question everybody has to ask, especially those students who are graduating,” the Rev. Paul Gros observed recently.

As a 29-year-old Catholic priest, he’s not too far removed from wrestling with such choices himself.

And as the parochial vicar (assistant pastor) at Christ the King Catholic Church on the LSU campus, Gros has seen a lot of students seeking his advice.

“I deal with students who are trying to find meaning and purpose,” Gros said. “I think they say, ?He’s a guy, a regular young person like me. He stands for something - maybe that could be me too.’”

Tall with short blond hair and glasses, he’s young-looking. Gros could pass for a college student, although the solemn black clothing and clerical collar lend him gravitas.

His voice is tranquil, pausing regularly to ensure he uses the right words.

He’ll be moving in July to serve as parochial vicar under the Rev. Vincent Dufresne working with three churches, Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Gramercy, St. Joseph in Paulina and St. Michael the Archangel in Convent.

Gros is part of a growing trend of ordinations happening at younger ages. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found the average age of ordination for new priests in the class of 2011 is 34, the fifth consecutive year that number has gotten younger in the survey’s 15-year history.

More than half of those ordained were younger than 34.

When students ask Gros when he felt called to be a priest, the answer isn’t simple.

“I can’t pinpoint a time when I knew I wanted to be a priest. It’s a slow, constant tug on the heart.”

Gros first felt that pull as a senior at Catholic High School in Baton Rouge. He had a friend who wanted to be a priest. “I kept thinking to myself, ?How does he know?’ It planted a small seed in me, I guess you could say.”

Gros went to the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. He said he lived a typical college life, participating in student government, joining a fraternity and earning straight As.

“I just kept going with the flow. And the whole time, this seed just kept growing.”

After his junior year, Gros took a leap of faith and packed his bags for St. Joseph’s Seminary College in Covington.

“I have to go and see,” he told himself. “Otherwise, I’ll have these doubts forever.”

As he studied and prayed for the next six years, Gros said he still had doubts about the commitment he was about to make. In 2009, it was time for him to make those commitments official through ordination.

“As you get close to it, you have fears, you have doubts,” he warns. “Even after six years, I realized God was still giving me an invitation. I could say yes or no.”

The ordination ceremony was much like a graduation, Gros said. People he knew from all over flocked to see him accept the calling. “It was a very joyful day. I was on cloud nine.”

With that joy, however, comes the acknowledgment of new responsibilities, often heavy.

“I thought to myself, ?Wow! I’m a priest,’” Gros joked. “People call me ?Father’ now.”

Chief among those challenges, Gros said, is facing his own personal shortcomings.

“Priests are human beings, too. We have weaknesses, and we have to struggle with them just like everyone else.”

Gros also said it’s a challenge to schedule his time: when to take appointments, when will there be time for personal prayer, learning that one cannot always say yes. “That is hard for me.”

Gros said those private meetings with parishioners are some of the most challenging - and most rewarding - times in his job. “People open up ? more than they would with a closest friend.”

Some of the things Gros struggles with are unique to his calling, such as a vow of celibacy, which Gros notes may well be the single biggest thing preventing a young man from becoming a priest.

The vow isn’t easy, Gros acknowledged. “I have natural urges just like any guy,” he said. “Celibacy is completely unnatural.”

But it is supernatural, Gros said.

“It’s not just a no to marriage,” he said. “It’s a yes to something greater. My life has become a witness to heaven.”

Gros said that, besides allowing him to dedicate his life to his parish, his vow is meant to mirror the heavenly wedding between Christ and the Church written in the book of Revelations.

“I have found much joy in (celibacy) and have come to embrace the joy that it is to the church.”

The Rev. Matthew Lorrain, director of vocations at the Baton Rouge Diocese, said not every prospective priest takes Gros’ path to the clergy.

Gros said he deals with two to three men every month who are considering taking the leap of faith.

Those men could be full-fledged adults, college students, or even eighth-graders.

“Sometimes they’re not really old enough to make a decision, but you plant a seed and tell them ?see what God has to offer,’” he said.

Lorrain said it’s important for potential priests to have typical social experiences before taking their vows, like Gros did.

“If I find a young man that hasn’t had a chance to date much, I tell them to go to LSU and have a normal college social life,” he said.

Lorrain said every priest -and every priestly candidate - is different, just like every person is different. But the common traits he looks for are a genuine desire to serve, the ability to support a family, and spiritual maturity.

“I don’t really have one speech I give people,” when encouraging them, Lorrain said. “I have to see what their relationship with God is like and how mature they are in their faith walk. It’s a huge decision, and not everyone fits for it.”

Lorrain said his job is to find out what God is calling a young man to do.

For his part, Gros said he relies on God to strengthen him for the burdens of his vocation. He cited the first verse of Jeremiah: “Do not say, ?I am too young,’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.??Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you.”

That Scripture inspires him to fulfill his calling, affirms Gros, even when it seems unnatural.

“People that could be my grandfather call me ?Father,’” he said wryly. “On a natural level, who am I to tell this person anything? But, on a supernatural level, age is not so big a deal.”