National Catholic Register


For Latecomers To Priesthood, Age Is a Minor Obstacle

BY Liz Swain

October 12-18, 1997 Issue | Posted 10/12/97 at 2:00 PM


SAN DIEGO, Calif.—Just because a man doesn't immediately respond to a call to the priesthood doesn't mean that the call won't be reissued and accepted later in life. Just ask William Olivas, who was ordained to the Order of St. Augustine last June at the age of 76.

As a child, William had served as an altar boy with the Augustinians in his hometown of Ojai, Calif. He entered their minor seminary, but World War U intervened. He served in Europe and then wrestled professionally for 25 years under names such as the Wild Man of Borneo and Elephant Boy.

He married a nurse named Martha. After he retired from wrestling, the couple operated Matilija Hot Springs in Ojai. They never missed Mass, and he was ordained a deacon in 1977. After his wife's death, he became an Augustinian brother. The timing of Brother Olivas’ ordination to the priesthood was particularly poignant because it marked the 20th anniversary of his ordination to the diaconate.

“I'm joyful and very happy. I enjoy celebrating Mass. I'm thinking young and looking ahead to the third millennium. God has a lot of plans,” said Father Olivas, the associate pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas parish in Ojai.

Like Father Olivas, Father Richard Huston was a deacon who returned to the seminary after his wife died. He had initially attended a seminary high school. He left, married, and embarked on a career as an architect.

Huston and his wife, Gloria, were married 43 years, and the now 71-year-old priest has three children and 14 grandchildren. As a deacon, he officiated at his daughter's marriage and baptized his grandson. Ordination to the priesthood in 1995 delighted his family.

“They're proud, they're happy. I enjoy it all, particularly when I'm in the sacristy to prepare for Mass. I see the longing and yearning of the people. I feel worthwhile,” said the priest who served in San Diego parishes until July 1.

Father Huston then began an assignment at the San Diego diocese's Office for Priestly Vocations. In that role, he will talk with the staff and students at St. Francis Seminary.

A later vocation is not merely a retirement option. It is also known as a second career vocation, reflecting a man's decision to leave a profession for the priesthood. Men have left behind any variety of occupations, from garbage collector, lawyer, psychologist, and doctor to attend Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., said admissions director Father Ray Hal—liwell MSsA, himself a 64-year-old priest ordained in 1993 after a career in education.

Father Halliwell teaches at the seminary, sharing skills from his first career. He had responded to an earlier call and entered a Carmelite seminary. He left religious studies, intending to return. Instead, he worked as an elementary school and junior high school teacher and administrator in New York City.

Father Halliwell said the reasons for second career vocations are as varied as the priests involved. Father Olivas identifies with his order's founder. “St. Augustine walked away from the Lord when he was younger, but then the Lord said, ‘I got you,’” he said.

Father Huston expressed a similar sentiment. “I think [later vocation priests are] coming to an awareness that God has been calling them to the seminary all of their lives,” he said.

Currently, there are more than 49,000 priests in the United States, according to Father Timothy Reker, executive director of the Office for Vocations and Priestly Formation for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Diocesan priests account for around 32,400 priests in this country, with the remaining 16,000 ordained for religious orders such as the Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, and Benedictines.

Ordinations around the world are on the rise, according to the Vatican. In this country, around 500 priests were ordained this year, a figure that has remained constant for the past five years and that includes later vocations.

The majority of second career priests are men in their 30s and 40s. While each vocation is different, some factors contribute to second career ordinations, said Father Reker. “It's difficult for youths to make a commitment,” he said, noting that during the past 20 years people have married later in life.

Furthermore, during the late 1960s, the percentage of priests who invited young men to consider ordination dropped significantly due to changes in the Church. “They were not sure what the future would hold. When people are not invited, they don't respond,” said Father Reker.

Moreover, several societal changes have contributed to the rise in later vocations. Father Reker said that in his father's time, a man made a commitment to one job for life. The shift in attitude about career changes was evident when Father Reker started theological studies in 1978. His seminary classmates included a banker, a teacher, and a lawyer.

Furthermore, people were living longer and society began to recognize that older workers had much to contribute. Those recognizing the potential of these workers included the Church. In fact, when one witnesses the joyous vocations of Father Huston and Father Olivas, it seems incredible that the cut-off age for seminary candidates used to be 28-years-old.

During the 1960s, several seminaries were founded for older candidates. Father Huston graduated from Pope John XXIII National Seminary, the Weston, Mass., institution established in 1964 by the late Cardinal Richard Cushing.

The seminary, modeled after the Beda seminary in Rome, allows second career candidates to bring their life experience and different learning styles to the classroom. “They bring life experiences in business, professions and the responsibility of a mature man in the world. They relate to the world with credibility and believability,” said seminary spokeswoman Jean Boyle. “Probably about 15 percent are widowers, most were never married.”

While life experience is a plus, it also means some adjustments for the second-career seminarian. “Everything is planned, when you eat, sleep and study. I was pretty much used to freedom,” said Father Huston.

He had dreaded the return to studies, but found happily that “all of the classes focused on a closer relationship with Our Lord.”

As a seminarian, Father Huston drew comfort from the advice of the rector on the first day of school: “This is the first day of transformation for becoming a priest.”

Today, Pope John XXIII seminarians range in age from around 30 to 60, with a median age of about 30, said Boyle. By design, enrollment is small and averages 60-65 students. This year, the seminary is near capacity with 73 students. There are close to 350 priest alumni serving in more than 80 dioceses and 20 religious communities in this country, the Virgin Islands, Australia, Ireland, and Jamaica.

Holy Apostles was started as a college seminary for older candidates in the 1960s and became a theologate in 1978. When the seminary opened in this country, there were 120 candidates. Currently, there are 70 candidates who range in age from their late 20s to their 60s, said Father Halliwell. Last month, 23 new candidates began their studies.

“The rewards for later vocation priests are the same as for any priest—serving the Lord, feeling closer to Jesus and growing in fellowship with Jesus,” said Father Halliwell. Still, the mature priest “may know himself better” and have the “sense of satisfaction in having done something.”

Although there is no age limit for admission, age is considered. “If a man is 74, he gets out at 78. We consider age and health. We look at enthusiasm and talent, the older he is, the more compensating talents he has to have. Someone 22 doesn't have to have as many positive points as someone 52,” said Father Halliwell.

That doesn't mean a man who senses a call shouldn't try, as Augustinian Father Olivas discovered. He was content to remain a brother, certain that seminary class work would be overwhelming. However, his superiors obtained permission for him to complete his program by attending St. John Seminary in Camarillo, Ca., for only one year.

His graduation brought a finish to the seminary studies that had been interrupted by World War II. “My mother was elated that I was going to be a priest. My dad was patriotic, he wanted me to be a soldier. I was young, I enlisted,” said the priest.

He went with the Army to England nine months before the 1944 invasion of Normandy, France. His duty included clearing minefields. The way he spent his leisure time would affect his future.

“As a Catholic boy, I did not go to pubs. I would go to the gym. A friend I worked out with invited me to his first wrestling match. [I went] and his opponent didn't show up,” remembers Father Olivas.

His friend's suggestion that he fill in was tempting to the young enlisted man who stood to share in a purse that came close to half his monthly military pay. He wrestled and then continued his military duty which included joining General George Patton in Russia.

He planned to return to the seminary when he went home. However, he discovered that war had taken a toll as he sat in his family home on the Fourth of July.

Anephew came up and said, “Bang.” The future Augustinian jumped.

“It was scary. I was too nervous, I knew I couldn't sit in a classroom,” said Father Olivas. “Then my friend called to see if I was interested in wrestling.”

He wrestled on several continents, in matches that were televised. He was again in the camera's eye last June when he was ordained by his friend, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Curry of the Los Angeles archdiocese.

“My ordination was covered by three networks. I was embarrassed, but the bishop said, ‘Showing your life shows that God calls from all ages.’ [The coverage led to] two inquiries about the order,” said Father Olivas.

Father Huston also promotes religious vocations during homilies when he celebrates Mass as a supply priest at San Diego parishes.

“I want to spread the word. I keep hoping the Lord will let me live long enough to do something worthwhile,” he said.

Liz Swain is based in San Diego.