Alex Rodarte, 27, of Rialto, left a girlfriend to follow the priesthood. Never especially religious, he began to embrace his faith after his father survived a stroke about five years ago. He started reading children's books about the saints and attending communion classes and Mass. In faith, he found unexpected purpose.
"I know how beautiful a relationship with a woman can be, but I feel privileged that I've been called to celibacy," Rodarte said. "There is something really beautiful about giving up everything I would want to help other people."
On a recent afternoon, the 13 men and their teachers filed silently into the chapel. Standing before wooden kneelers, their eyes closed, they drifted into prayer. The only sound was a growling stomach. Slowly, they opened their eyes, paged through their prayer books and recited a Psalm.
"Lord, who shall be admitted to your tent and dwell on your holy mountain?" they asked. "He who walks without fault; he who acts with justice and speaks the truth from his heart. . . . Such a man will stand firm forever."
These moments are sacred to 19-year-old Pablo Quiroz. In the chapel, he finds peace.
Celibacy and daily prayer have challenged Serra House's youngest occupant. When he closes his eyes, he prays to Jesus "to give me the strength to continue on my journey. . . to control whatever feelings I have."
Quiroz is surprised to find himself at Serra House. As a boy, he avoided church, attending only when his parents forced him. But then his family arrived at their Fontana church one Sunday morning four years ago and found no celebrant.
"Without priests, there is no one to give Mass, no one to celebrate," he recalls thinking. "Something in my head said, 'You have to do something about this.' "
Quiroz spoke to his parish priest, who gave him the phone number for Sister Sarah Shrewsbury, the nun who recruits candidates for Serra House. Quiroz vacillated. So his mother called and arranged an interview. He now says it's the best decision he's ever made. "I feel like I'm growing spiritually-wise," he said.
The institution of celibacy has long been a matter of dispute within the Catholic Church. Traditionalists have embraced its biblical origins, citing the examples of Jesus and St. Paul. Some theologians counter that only one of the 12 apostles -- John -- was celibate. And the practice, they assert, was optional for the first 1,000 years of the church.
Progressives often question whether mandatory celibacy has made it difficult to recruit priests and whether it might be a contributing factor in the sexual abuse scandal that has come to define the U.S. church for many over the last decade.
But at Serra House, celibacy is embraced as a holy imperative.
At his final formation class of the year, Sanz spoke of lessons from Paul, telling the seminarians that the 1st century convert to Christianity gave up not only wealth but a family of his own to spread the gospel.
"He developed a lifestyle that was fitting to his . . . mission," Sanz told the men. "People are single because God calls them to a mission."
During another session, titled "Stupidity 101," Sanz handed out copies of the diocese's harassment policy and asked the men to take turns reading aloud: Avoid touching others in an inappropriate or unnecessary way. Refrain from suggestive language or jokes. Steer clear of improper inquiries into the personal affairs of employees.
"When you are in ministry, you are in a position of power. With power comes responsibility," Sanz said. "Are you helping the other person or yourself? That should be the question you are asking. Remember, you are a public person. People have expectations of you."
While Sanz addresses the public aspects of celibacy, Father Juan Garcia investigates its private impact. It's his job to keep watch over the seminarians' spiritual lives, looking for signs that they may be struggling with their commitments.
Are you praying? he asks when he meets with them privately. Are you developing a personal relationship with Christ? Do you have sexual impulses? Are you lonely? Who is in your heart -- Christ or someone else?