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Future Men of the Cloth Share Common Thread

Times Religion Writer

“I fought it!

“But there was an itch, an inkling in the back of my mind, towards the priesthood.”

So, after a short but successful career as features editor and rock music critic for a Bakersfield newspaper, Mark Stetz, 30, scratched that itch.

Now a third-year theology student at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, Stetz expects to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest in the Diocese of Monterey after he completes one more year of study and reflection.

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What was the most compelling influence on Stetz and other students at St. John’s in their decision to become priests?

The moral example and attractive life style of a priest they admired, they said during interviews on the peaceful twin campuses of the four-year college and the graduate theology school that make up St. John’s Seminary.

‘Extraordinary Humans’

“I hadn’t seen the priesthood as ‘livable,’ ” Stetz said. “But when I really got to know the priests of the parish I found they were extraordinary humans . . . happy and fulfilled. . . . That was the draw, and it’s the way I feel most fully human.”

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The priesthood “never crossed my mind until I was a junior in college,” added second-year theology student David Shaffer, 26, of Woodland Hills. “But when I did some charity work, my faith came alive through a priest who became a close friend.

“It’s a natural life style. . . . I see myself as a priest; I really don’t see it as a sacrifice,” Shaffer said.

Some men at St. John’s have nurtured the vision of priesthood since childhood. Carl Tresler, for one, a second-year graduate theology student, attended St. John’s Seminary College for all four years. Now 23, he has wanted to be a priest ever since he was a third-grade altar boy and assisted a priest at a funeral Mass. He still remembers “the change and comfort” he saw come over the widow through the priest’s sermon.

“It stuck with me all through the years,” he said.

For Tresler and other seminarians who shared their hopes and fears over a recent lunch with a reporter, their calling is to swim against the tide. Commitment to lifelong vows of obedience and singleness seems to them a minor sacrifice compared with the anticipated rewards of serving God and humanity.

“In celibacy, a priest gives himself totally and completely in a positive way,” Tresler added. “People expect the priest to be a countercultural sign.”

Still, the dropout rate is high in the three-seminary system of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The four-year high school, or “minor,” seminary--Our Lady Queen of Angels in San Fernando--loses up to 80% of the boys who start ninth grade by the time they are ready for college.

“We could hope three students a year (who start seminary in ninth grade) will wind up being priests,” said Father Richard Martini, vice rector and dean of studies at Our Lady Queen of Angels Seminary. “That’s probably about the same or a little better than in the 1950s and ‘60s.”

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Pattern Persisted

The pattern has indeed persisted through the years: The 1950 freshman class of 53--which included Roger M. Mahony, now archbishop of Los Angeles--had 19 graduates four years later; of these, 11 went on to the college seminary.

Nineteen of 29 students beginning classes at the high school seminary in 1975 graduated in 1979, and 11 of these went on to St. John’s college. The same number of minor seminary graduates are in the current freshman college seminary class.

Others fall out during college seminary years and throughout the “theologate,” or four-year graduate formation track at St. John’s: There are twice as many freshman and sophomores at the theologate this year as juniors and seniors.

Although scholarships and work programs help St. John’s seminarians meet expenses, room, board and tuition at the college seminary run $3,400 a year. Another $10,000 to $12,000 of the actual cost for each student is financed through an assessment levied on every parish in the archdiocese, according to its size.

At the theologate level, the annual cost per student is $21,000. The archdiocese pays up to full tuition, based on need, according to Msgr. George H. Niederauer, rector of St. John’s graduate theology seminary.

Niederauer said students aren’t pressured to remain nor is there “any stigma” to dropping out.

Father Daniel Laner, the former archdiocesan vocations director, said he asked older students why they had come to the seminary.

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“They say, ‘I’ve had it out there in the world; I want to help people; I want to help them know God.’ It’s as simple as that and it’s as profound as that,” Laner said.


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