Last year, only 10 men were ordained by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles--the nation’s largest--where 1,280 priests served 2.7 million Roman Catholics.
That is only one priest for every 2,151 Catholics, the lowest ratio of priests to parishioners of any archdiocese in the country.
And the challenge steadily grows more difficult:
This year, vocations directors say, only five or six men will be ordained by the Los Angeles archdiocese. At the same time, the Catholic population has swelled to 3 million--up 300,000 in a single year.
Because the church will not make such changes as allowing priests to marry and women to be ordained, the handful of seminarians who complete St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo will join the dwindling ranks of aging priests serving an ever-larger number of Catholics in the three-county archdiocese.
“There’s no way (Los Angeles Archbishop Roger M.) Mahony is going to restore the number of priests he needs out there,” said Dean Hoge, a professor of sociology at the Catholic University of America in Washington. “There’s no way you’re going to get enough celibate candidates. That day is over.”
Even among those candidates who do enroll in the archdiocese’s three-tier seminary system, only about one of 10 are finally ordained as priests.
Still, Mahony believes the archdiocese can successfully buck the downward trend. Rapid population growth in Southern California--including a large influx of newly arrived immigrants--is creating “an enthusiasm, a positive atmosphere,” Mahony said in an interview. “We’re opening new parishes. There’s great excitement, and that’s very, very contagious.”
“I’m very optimistic,” said the archbishop, a 1962 graduate of St. John’s Seminary. Mahony eschews the phrase “vocations crisis.” It creates “almost a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said.
The current overall enrollment of 257 students in the three seminary programs preparing for ordination in the Los Angeles archdiocese is the highest in 10 years.
“We have three classes in a row after next year that will ordain 15 or more,” said Father Daniel Laner, who until recently was the archdiocesan vocations director. “A lot of fantastic men. . . .” But, Laner conceded, at least twice as many need to be ordained each year “just to catch up.”
The archdiocese is recruiting an increasing number of young men of Latino and Asian backgrounds for the priesthood. The present first-year college class of 44 students at St. John’s Seminary includes 18 Latinos and 14 Asians.
And a pilot transition program launched two years ago adds a fifth preparatory year for students needing fundamental language, math and study skills before they enter the college seminary. That class jumped to 22 last fall, up from nine students the year before.
Matching a pattern for seminarians across the country, unmarried or widowed men in mid-life are leaving secular careers to embrace the spiritual vocation. The average age of students at St. John’s graduate theology seminary is 30.
‘Apt to Stick With It’
“Older men coming in feel more settled in their calling to be priests,” noted Father Bob Juarez, director of Hispanic vocations in the archdiocese. “They’re more apt to stick with it and get ordained.”
A new language study center, called Casa Reina de Los Angeles, opened in September at Our Lady Queen of Angels Seminary in San Fernando. The specific goal there is to help non-English-speaking aspirants for the priesthood.
Juarez said he is pleased that 15 men are in the program. It is easier to recruit Latino than Anglo youth for the seminary, he said, “because of strong Hispanic youth groups” and a network of small “formation houses” or casas designed to interest Latinos in the priesthood.
“Programs for ethnics haven’t really existed before,” Juarez added, but now Korean, Vietnamese and Filipino seminarians--as well as the Latinos--are preparing to serve the growing ethnic parishes.
At the same time, however, there is a dramatic drop-off in the number of foreign-born priests trained in other countries--particularly Ireland and Spain--who are being sent to serve in Southern California. These men made up much of the deficit in the archdiocesan priesthood ranks in the past.
Though Ireland still sends a few priests to the United States, “other countries have their own problems getting enough priests now,” said Bill Rivera, communications spokesman for the archdiocese. “With the exception of the Philippines, there just isn’t a surplus of priests anymore.”
The vocations office and Auxiliary Bishop Carl Fisher, who is black, are striving to enlist black youth, but no black seminarians are at St. John’s college or graduate seminaries. Only four are at the high school seminary in San Fernando. (There are eight black diocesan priests in Los Angeles and about 60,000 black Catholics.)
Some parishes--for example, La Placita near Olvera Street and Blessed Sacrament in Hollywood--are served by priests who belong to religious orders and were trained in seminaries run by their orders. In fact, the religious order priests working within the Archdiocese of Los Angeles slightly outnumber the diocesan priests. These order priests, such as Jesuits and Salesians, report to superiors within their orders although Mahony must approve their placement and assignments.
Most of the diocesan (non-order) priests are products of St. John’s Seminary and were specifically ordained to serve within the Los Angeles archdiocese, which encompasses Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
Seminarians who are residents in dioceses that do not have their own seminaries may attend the school of their choice. Thus, St. John’s has a number of students preparing for ordination in Orange, San Bernardino, San Diego and other area dioceses.
There are no religious order seminaries in Southern California. Many orders combine their seminary programs, sending their priest candidates to “theology unions” such as the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.
Juarez, Sister Kathy Bryant and Father Joseph Shea--the vocations team--carry out their work on a $200,000 annual budget in a sparsely furnished office across from the chancery building in downtown Los Angeles.
Funding and staffing for the vocations office have not been affected by the amassing of about $40 million in endowment funds to operate the archdiocese’s three-phase seminary program at Our Lady Queen of Angels high school facility in San Fernando and the four-year college and the four-year theology campuses at St. John’s in Camarillo.
Rare books--including a 15th-Century Gutenberg Bible--manuscripts, paintings and other unusual art objects in the collection of the late philanthropist Carrie Estelle Doheny have been auctioned by Christie’s to generate the endowment money. The final auction, expected to raise an additional $4 million, will be held in New York in May.
Announcement of the five-part sales in early 1987 triggered consternation and criticism from art historians and others who said the rare collection at the Doheny Memorial Library at St. John’s should not be broken up and dispersed to a variety of buyers.
In a February, 1987, speech at the seminary college, Mahony had called for a tripling of the number of seminarians in the archdiocese, a dramatic increase in the number of ordinations and extensive recruiting of candidates for the priesthood among the area’s diverse ethnic groups.
Although Mahony pledged at the time that the proceeds would subsidize the recruitment and training of new priests, the money will not be used to create new programs, hire additional faculty or provide capital expansion at St. John’s--only to eventually make the system self-supporting, according to Father Terrance Fleming, the seminary’s treasurer.
Fleming said the $4 million in annual income expected from the Doheny endowment money will “still be $4 million short” of the $8 million needed to run the three schools. Until now, the archdiocese and its parishes have funded St. John’s. An endowment fund of about $100 million is needed to fully support the schools, Fleming added.
Critics charge that the archdiocese’s aggregate cost of nearly $1 million to train and ordain each new priest is too much. They point out that nine out of 10 seminarians are never ordained. But St. John’s officials consider the schools more than just the training ground for future priests. They also represent an investment to equip Catholic laymen--the seminary dropouts--for church leadership roles that do not require ordination.
Lay Catholics are indeed getting more involved in running their church.
“I see more and more lay participation at the parish level,” said John Marcello of Los Angeles, a trustee for the Southern California area of Serra International, an organization dedicated to increasing the numbers of priests.
He added that he was “very pleased” with the vocations awareness programs in the Los Angeles archdiocese under Mahony, but he acknowledged that the priest shortage is putting “a lot of pressure on individual priests and pastors” who must minister to an increasing flock at the very time there are fewer priests to do the work.
Marcello and Msgr. Thomas Curry, vicar of clergy for the archdiocese, agreed that although cut backs are taking place--in some cases priests are not being replaced when they leave--no parishes are without priests.
Asked what he thought the impact would be on the Archdiocese of Los Angeles if optional celibacy is ever approved, Mahony said in the long run it would not help.
“If we went to a married clergy, it would mean a total revamping. . . . It would be a completely different kind of pastoral service. Lots of lay Catholics have never thought that through.”
Married priests would not live at the parish rectory or be available seven days a week, Mahony pointed out, and because of family commitments, they would be like others who live with family at home and work certain hours.
Mahony noted that although Eastern rite Catholic churches permit married clergy, they also have a priest shortage.
“If . . . (optional celibacy) were allowed in our church, it would be interesting and novel, but I think you’d see a transition. . . . There would be a brief period when more men would become priests, but it would then level out to what Eastern rites have experienced,” Mahony predicted.
Curry said the archdiocese has no “contingency plan” if Mahony’s optimism about ordinations increasing in the next few years does not materialize.
The archbishop “is absolutely convinced there are many vocations out there in our midst and that we will be able to recruit young people to serve in the priesthood and the religious life,” Curry said.
Juarez and Bryant said they hope to reverse the negative “image problem” that the Catholic priesthood and religious vocations have acquired in recent years.
“We’re trying to get an image that priests and sisters live in the real world,” Bryant said, noting that Auxiliary Bishops Patrick Ziemann and Fisher as well as least 15 priests, 10 sisters, three brothers and more than 15 seminarians all plan to run in the Los Angeles Marathon on Sunday.
The vocations staff arranges for about 300 priests, sisters, brothers and seminarians to speak in parishes throughout the archdiocese, talking up the positives of church careers in each parish three Sundays in a row.
“We concentrate on giving young people an option to look at who they are, not just what they can do,” Juarez said.
On the final Sunday, everyone in the parish is handed a card and asked to nominate young people for religious vocations and list the qualities they see in them that would make them “good” priests, brothers or sisters.
Juarez said 300 to 400 names typically surface each year. This year, 90 young people came to follow-up “inquirers” meetings. Then, those of college age and above who were interested were formed into regional “discernment groups” of half a dozen or so prospects each.
The program, Called by Name, is “pretty healthy stuff,” Juarez said. “We don’t spend lots of money on billboards or Madison Avenue advertising like some dioceses. We believe in a personal approach.”
Mahony noted approvingly that a prayer program for vocations is under way with around-the-clock vigils in various parishes.
“There has never really been any era in the history of the Catholic Church where there hasn’t been a need for more priests and religious” workers, Mahony added. But “Jesus has given a blueprint on how to deal with this: prayer and invitation. I always say to young people, ‘Christ may be calling you to be a priest or religious (worker)’. They react with surprise when they hear that. They often say, ‘No one ever asked me before.’ ”
And Msgr. Sylvester Ryan, president-rector of St. John’s Seminary college, said he thinks “young Catholic Americans are no less generous in serving Christ and the church than their predecessors. I really believe they just need to be challenged to see the benefit of making these kinds of sacrifices.
“I’m very impressed with the caliber of men we have. Their emotional and intellectual commitment is very good.
“Numbers is a problem. . . . Yes, I’m worried. . . . Can we catch up with the need?
“I’m no prophet.”
PRIESTS IN LOS ANGELES ARCHDIOCESE
Here’s a historical comparison of Roman Catholics, priests and seminarians in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
CATHOLIC PRIEST SEMINARY PRIESTS YEAR POPULATION POPULATION ENROLLMENT ORDAINED 1940 327,952 652 245 5 1950 832,500 727 311 17 1960 1,297,584 1,161 969 19 1965 1,621,101 1,393 758 20 1970 1,707,605 1,414 989 18 1975 2,208,989 1,447 336 14 1980 2,089,682 1,265 426 24 1985 2,561,602 1,313 465 21 1986 2,650,000 1,401 469 9 1987 2,659,000 1,272 354 15 1988 2,753,952 1,280 283 22
Source: Department of Public Affairs, Los Angeles Archdiocese