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Southland Churches Face Shortage of Latino Priests

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The line of waiting sinners zigzagged around the pews, past the stands of votive candles and out the door at St. Anthony Claret Church. The Spanish-language Mass had just ended, and Father Al Baca had been invited to dine with the Castillo family.

But first he had to hear the confessions. Patiently and attentively, Baca listened to the parishioners who needed to repent on a Saturday night. Forgive me, father. Necesito un consejo, padre. Please, give me some advice.

As the litany of sins turned into profound soul-searching, the minutes quickly became hours. At 10 p.m., three hours after the Mass had ended, the Castillos gave up.

“We were going to take him to eat, but he was too busy,” said Angelica Castillo, 12, an altar server. “At 9:40 p.m., he was still doing confessions. The church was full of people who wanted to talk to him.”

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Indeed, Baca, 38, is in high demand. So are the other priests in Southern California who speak Spanish.

Of the 1,316 priests in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, 375--or 28%--speak Spanish and work with Latino congregations, though only about 180 of those priests are of Latino descent.

But Latinos constitute about 65% of the estimated 4 million Roman Catholics in the archdiocese, which covers Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. If present patterns continue, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony will pastor one of the largest Latino communities in the world.

In the Diocese of Orange, where the Latino population is also burgeoning, there are 52 priests who speak Spanish. For every one of those priests, there are 1,360 parishioners--a challenge that both taxes the diocese and serves as a catalyst for change.

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The problem goes beyond simply recruiting Spanish-speaking clergy. Only priests who understand the cultures of recent immigrants can serve them completely, church leaders and parishioners agree.

“Catholicism in Mexico is deeply meshed with the culture,” said Msgr. Jaime Soto, the Orange diocese’s vicar for the Latino community. Priests who learn Spanish “learn quickly that you can’t speak American in Spanish. There is nothing like being able to tell a joke like they tell it in Jalisco. It can make the difference in making people feel at home, or--more importantly--in communicating the Gospel in a way that is forceful.”

The Catholic Church has grappled with a priest shortage in the United States for more than a decade. Add to that the explosion of immigrant populations and the unique religious traditions and styles of worship that they bring, and the result is a multiethnic church that has been forced to diversify its ministries.

Like earlier immigrants from Italy and Ireland, Latinos are reshaping the U.S. Catholic Church, said Father Jose Gomez, executive director of the National Assn. of Hispanic Priests. There are only 2,005 Latino priests in the United States--and 20 million Latino Roman Catholics, according to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. That’s a ratio of about 1 to 10,000.

Latinos are the ethnic group that is placing the most demands on the church’s resources, Soto said. More than 70,000 Latinos attend Mass in the Diocese of Orange on Sundays, compared with nearly 22,000 Vietnamese and more than 3,000 Koreans.

And because of the youthfulness of the group, Latinos place more pastoral demands on their priests.

At Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in downtown Los Angeles, which is known as La Placita, Father Albert M. Vazquez said about 300 children are baptized every week. In addition, thousands more pack the church office daily seeking information on first communion, confirmation and marriages--all sacraments requiring months of spiritual catechism and counseling.

“It’s true. I think we could easily double the number of priests in Los Angeles who speak Spanish and still be in need,” said Vazquez, pastor of La Placita. “I know of several churches in places like Pasadena, Northridge and Long Beach where they have Latino members, but don’t have Spanish Mass. That’s simply because they don’t have a Spanish-speaking priest.

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Vazquez--whose congregants are almost all Latino, with many immigrants from Mexico and Central America--carries one of the heaviest loads in the Los Angeles archdiocese. With four priests who all speak Spanish, La Placita serves about 12,000 Latino Catholics. Every Sunday, the church holds 11 Masses and each service is standing room only. On special occasions such as Christmas and Easter, Vazquez and church volunteers set up speakers and chairs along the sidewalks and street so all can hear the service.

Other Los Angeles churches such as St. Thomas the Apostle in Pico-Union and St. Mathias in Huntington Park have similarly seen their Latino populations explode.

Then there are those confessions, which often go into the night. “Hispanics don’t just want to say, ‘This is my sin, please forgive me,’ ” Baca said. “They want advice, they want to talk about it. They want to be challenged. That’s very Hispanic. Priests laugh about this all of the time. A confession with a Hispanic is not a confession. It’s therapy.”

“Just doing a Spanish Mass is minimal,” said Father Ed Poettgen, pastor of St. Polycarp Church in Stanton and a fluent Spanish speaker. “We’re talking about a vast number of people who happen to be Catholic but who come from many different places. If you want a priest to minister to them, he needs to have a historical understanding not only of Southern California but also from where they came.”

For Poettgen, who learned Spanish in the seminary almost 20 years ago, that means visiting the native towns and cities of his parishioners. His homilies are filled with images of Mexican churches in small towns such as Jalos Totitlan, and strong expressions of Mexican faith as seen in the statue of “Cristo Rey De Cubilete.”

Father Louis Velasquez, director of Hispanic Ministry for the Los Angeles archdiocese, agreed. “It’s not just what you hear with your ears but what you hear with your heart,” he said.

Although Marina Gordiano has moved away from Anaheim, she continues to attend Mass at St. Anthony Claret because the Mexican American priest there, Baca, relates to her 14-year-old son in a way a non-Latino priest could not. A Garden Grove native who was ordained 10 years ago, Baca was assigned to the parish more than a year ago.

“There are others who speak Spanish, but it’s not the same,” Gordiano said.

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Vazquez of La Placita said many of the Latinos he serves are poor, placing further demands on priests.

“The poverty poses another obstacle. We hold prayer meetings and no one has a car. So, you have to lend them money for the bus. Or you drive them home,” he said.

Church officials stress that they see the shortage of priests who know the language and culture of immigrants as a challenge, rather than a problem. “Those of us who work in this ministry see that we are on the cusp of hope serving such young congregations,” Soto said.

One of the steps church leaders are taking is requiring all California seminarians to learn Spanish. And a new seminary opening in Mexico City next summer will prepare Latinos whose English skills are too limited to be admitted to U.S. seminaries, Gomez said.

Another way the church has responded to a shortage of priests--Spanish-speaking or not--is by allowing lay leaders and deacons to perform some of the duties of overburdened priests. Earlier this year, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles developed an educational institute to train immigrants specifically for that purpose.

“This does not diminish the ordained priest’s role, but the crisis has compelled us as a Catholic community to see that all Christians have a role in our society,” Velasquez said. “In that way, this has turned out to be a blessing.”

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Times staff writer Margaret Ramirez in Los Angeles contributed to this story.


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