Working to fill a dire need for priests

Father Erik Esparza baptizes a baby at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Barstow. He is one of only two priests at his parish, serving 1,200 families.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The morning sun has barely crept above the horizon when 13 beginning seminarians emerge from dormitory rooms and wander into the chapel of their religious compound.

“God our Father . . . let not temptation ever quench the fire that your love has kindled within us,” they recite from liturgy books.

Inside the Junipero Serra House of Formation, at the base of a rock-strewn mountain 60 miles east of Los Angeles, these men -- the youngest just 19 -- are getting their first taste of the priesthood, devoting themselves to prayer, obedience and celibacy.

They are a precious commodity in the U.S. Roman Catholic Church, which faces a critical shortage of priests that is magnified in fast-growing regions such as the Inland Empire.

This corner of Southern California has one diocesan priest for every 13,000 Catholics. Nationally, the figure is roughly one for every 3,500.

If there is a solution, at least in the Diocese of San Bernardino, it may lie at Serra House, a Mission-style complex where recruitment is handled by a gregarious nun wearing earrings, and religious guidance is left to two priests in sandals and short sleeves.

It is one of about a dozen formation houses across the country that give would-be priests an opportunity to test their resolve before they enter traditional seminaries.

But there are no miracles in this priestly incubator, only the beginning of a long, painstaking journey.

This year, the diocese has ordained just two priests. Last year, it produced a bumper crop -- six. In the 24 years since Serra House opened, it has contributed 45 priests to a diocese that stretches hundreds of miles from the cities of Riverside and San Bernardino through desert towns to the Arizona and Nevada borders.

“It’s work of hope,” said Father Jose Sanz, Serra House’s rector.

The Diocese of San Bernardino was created in 1978 by Pope Paul VI, who carved it from the northern half of the Diocese of San Diego to give the burgeoning Catholic community of San Bernardino and Riverside counties a home of its own.

Back then, the new diocese had 76 active priests for 235,000 Catholics. Today, it has 91 for more than 1.2 million adherents.

With no local Catholic university or seminary to replenish an aging clergy, diocese leaders decided in 1985 to develop their own priests at Serra House, a converted convent in Riverside. The house has since moved to the nearby city of Grand Terrace, near Colton, occupying a two-story building with a red-tile roof at the top of a sloping residential street that neighbors call “holy hill.”

Its residents -- some high school graduates, others from college or the business world -- spend one or two years living in its dormitories during the week, returning home on weekends, readying themselves for three years of philosophy studies at Loyola University in Chicago, followed by five years at seminaries in Camarillo or San Antonio.

The training includes a one-year internship in a local parish and a stint in the diocese’s San Bernardino headquarters. After completing theology studies, seminarians return to be ordained by the diocese’s bishop and assigned to one of its 94 churches.

It takes up to 10 years to turn a seminarian into an ordained priest.

At Serra House, the day begins with 6:45 a.m. Mass in the chapel. After breakfast, the seminarians disperse to Riverside Community College and other local schools to work toward bachelor’s degrees in philosophy or other subjects. At 4:30 p.m., everyone returns for prayer in the chapel, dinner and the nightly news on a big-screen television in the recreation room.

During evening formation classes, the seminarians study the Catholic catechism, church history and liturgy, and discuss how chastity relates to their lives in the priesthood. A handbook offers guidance on celibacy: “The spiritual path transforms the experience of loneliness into a holy solitude based on a strong, lively and personal love for Jesus Christ.”

The house itself is designed to foster reflection, the solitude of its loggia and courtyard broken only by the steady music of birds.

But the peacefulness belies spiritual struggles.

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.

Having finished two years at Serra House, Rodarte is moving to Chicago next month to study philosophy at Loyola, but not without some disquiet about the woman he left behind. He said he still misses her at times, recalling the pain he felt last fall when she told him she had met someone new.

“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?

Garcia advises them to surrender their will for the sake of a larger mission: growing close to Jesus.

“All of us have to love, but we love in different manners,” Garcia said. “Celibacy is a way of living, loving and serving. It is different from the way of married people. It’s not easy. It’s something you have to learn. To be celibate is a gift from God.”

It is a gift embraced by 20-year-old Arturo Felix of Victorville. He finished his two years at Serra House in 2007 and is preparing to start his second year at Loyola in the fall. Like Quiroz, Felix came to the house out of high school. He says his commitment to becoming a priest grows with each year.

“The more you live the life, the more beauty you find in it,” he said.

To earn a spot at Serra House, candidates must pass muster with Shrewsbury, an outgoing nun of 59 who prefers slacks and dress shirts to a habit. She checks their references and tells them to expect physical and psychological evaluations, fingerprinting and background checks.

“It’s easier to get into the FBI, God help these guys,” said the nun, who estimated that 10% to 20% of those who express interest end up at Serra House.

The diocese’s bishop decides whom to admit after an admissions team reviews applicants’ records. Shrewsbury said she recommends men who appear to be serious about celibacy and their relationship with God, and who demonstrate a desire for service and an ability to work well with others.

She said she knows that men are capable of meeting the challenge. For proof, she points to six new priests who visited the house on a recent Friday, alumni who had been invited to share their experiences.

“Ask yourself what is drawing you to the priesthood,” Father James Oropel, 32, told the seminarians. “What are your intentions?”

Father John Gunningham offered advice on coping with loneliness. “Prayer is the answer to everything,” said Gunningham, 60, who taught in a Catholic school and served as a Franciscan brother before joining the priesthood.

Father Erik Esparza, at 28 the youngest priest in the diocese, encouraged the men to treasure baptisms and other wonders of life as they confront funerals, sickness and tragedy. “You have to keep coming back to the blessing, when God is doing good things,” he said.

Esparza told how his parish, St. Joseph Catholic Church in Barstow, has just two priests for 1,200 families. He said the job can seem overwhelming and energizing at the same time.

“Remind people to persevere,” he urged the young men before him. “We have to be that presence of life where there is so much darkness.”