Where Are the Priests?
A look at the disparity between the general Hispanic Catholic population in the U.S. and the number of priestly vocations.
SEBASTOPOL, Calif. — Father Raul Lemus, pastor of St. Sebastian in Sebastopol, in northern California, was born in El Salvador in 1968. He came to the United States as a small child and grew up in tough neighborhoods in the San Francisco area. As a teen, he did not practice his Catholic faith. In fact, he recalled, “I was a troublemaker back then.”
Today, he refers to himself as “the priest from the ’hood.”
Being a younger Catholic of Hispanic descent, Father Lemus is very much the face of the changing Catholic Church in the United States. But as a Hispanic man who grew up in the States who pursued ordination to the priesthood, he is not the norm.
According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Hispanic Catholics are present in virtually every diocese in the country. They comprise nearly 40% of all Catholics in the United States, about 27.4 million of the 68.5 million Catholics total in the U.S. They have made up 71% of the growth of the Church in the U.S. in the past 50 years, and over half of young adult Catholics are Hispanic.
Yet, despite their large numbers, particularly among youth, large numbers of young Hispanic men are choosing not to enter seminary. In 2011, 15% of ordinands are Hispanic, many of whom were born and raised outside of the United States. The number of Hispanic men ordained to the priesthood averages between 10%-15% of the total.
Men of Caucasian or European descent, in contrast, made up the largest number of ordinands — 70% — with men of Asian descent about 10%. Therefore, many congregations in the country which are predominantly Hispanic are served by non-Hispanic members of the clergy.
Hispanics are also underrepresented among U.S. Catholic bishops. Forty Hispanic men have been ordained bishops in the United States, 28 of whom are still active. They make up 9% of all Catholic bishops in the United States.
Jesuit Father Allan Deck serves as the USCCB’s executive director of the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church in Washington, D.C. He remarked, “Studies have shown that second-generation Catholics move away from the Church. It’s a matter of considerable concern for us.”
Secular Culture’s Allure
Lay Catholic evangelist Jesse Romero (JesseRomero.com) believes that second- and third-generation Hispanics are becoming secularized. Romero, a retired L.A. County sheriff’s deputy who began evangelizing as a second career, is a first-generation Mexican-American who grew up in the Los Angeles area.
“Pope John Paul II spoke of ‘baptized nonbelievers,’” Romero noted. “Many Hispanics in the United States cannot resist the incredible allurement of secular culture, what we might refer to as ‘wine, women and song.’”
Romero said such Hispanics come to believe that Catholicism is for “those uneducated peasants from south of the border,” and the way to gain respect in the U.S. and move up the social ladder is by embracing “the secular humanism offered at many universities.” (Father Lemus, too, opined that there was an anti-Catholic bias at many colleges leading Hispanics from the Church.) Other American Hispanics are enticed by the seemingly more polished message offered by evangelical Protestant ministers.
Additionally, second- and third-generation Hispanic Catholics often do not speak Spanish and do not identify with priests from Mexico and Central America in American parishes who may only speak limited English. Caucasian priests serving predominantly Hispanic parishes do the best they can, Romero said, but often have trouble connecting to young Hispanics as well. Romero believes the solution lies in better catechesis, as many Hispanics do not know their faith, and more passionate presentations by those who embrace it.
He observes that while Anglo-Catholics are often more “cerebral” in the practice of their faith, Hispanic Catholics often are drawn to the charismatic renewal.
“It’s huge,” he said. “When you meet active Latino Catholics, they often ask, ‘Are you renewed?’”
Romero has made a career of evangelizing both Hispanic and non-Hispanic groups, in either Spanish or English, and has seen many adopt or return to the faith that they never really knew.
Msgr. James Forsen, director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which has the largest concentration of Hispanic Catholics in the United States, agrees that secularism is a problem. Second- and third-generation Hispanic Catholics, he said, “are becoming Americanized. They’re told, ‘The world is yours.’ Sacrificing all to follow Christ becomes especially challenging.”
The archdiocese has been experiencing some “lean years” for new priests, he said, and will for years to come. Six were ordained in 2011; in 2010, there were three. Since the archdiocese is the biggest in the country, the small numbers are a major cause for concern.
Msgr. Forsen believes, like Father Lemus, a partial solution lies in encouraging young men, whether Hispanic or not, to pursue the priesthood, presenting it as an attractive way of life for those who are called and offering positive images of those serving as priests.
Father Lemus had a conversion experience in his 20s and became active in his parish. He was involved in the youth group, became an altar boy, lector and extraordinary minister of Communion. He was impressed by some of the priests he had known, especially a family friend from El Salvador, Father Emiliano Caballero.
“Father Caballero is a humble and simple man, and happy being a priest,” Father Lemus said. He decided to enter the seminary, at least in part, because “I wanted to be like the men I admired: priests like Father Caballero.”
Strong Sense of Family
Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo Nevares of Phoenix believes that because Hispanics have such a strong sense of family that they don’t want to leave to attend seminary. Additionally, young Hispanic men have a sense of obligation to help support the family financially, which they cannot do in the seminary.
Bishop Nevares grew up in Houston. He is a first-generation American whose parents came from Monterrey, Mexico. The future bishop was the youngest of five children. At age 14, he left home to attend the high-school seminary before he was old enough to get a job. Later, he thought about returning home and going to work, but an older brother encouraged him to continue in the seminary.
“My brother said, ‘We can support the family financially. You go back to seminary and support us spiritually,’” the bishop recalled.
He did — and was ordained a priest in 1981. He became Phoenix’s first auxiliary bishop in 2010.
Bishop Nevares also believes many Hispanic parents discourage their sons from pursuing religious vocations, believing a “real man” gets married and has children.
Like Los Angeles, Phoenix has struggled with vocations to the priesthood. In 2010, three were ordained priests; in 2011, there will be none. Like the nationwide total, about 40% of Phoenix’s estimated 1 million Catholics are Hispanic.
“We need to persuade young married people that having a son that is a priest is honorable and will bring many blessings to a family,” said the bishop. “It is a wonderful gift to have a child that is a priest.”
Another Hispanic bishop, Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Calif., is a second-generation Hispanic American. He came from a pious Catholic environment. He remarked, “There was little we did as a family that was not related to the faith or family. We mainly socialized with Catholics, either fellow parishioners or family. This was my universe.”
His parents supported his pursuing a vocation to the priesthood, and he was involved in a youth-ministry program at his parish.
“It created a context where my friends and I could participate as young people in the life of the Church,” he commented.
Today, Bishop Soto believes that parents should “encourage their children to listen and respond to God’s voice. They should invite them to consider the religious life and the priesthood.”
He also believes the lack of quality youth-ministry programs is a significant factor causing the dearth in vocations among Hispanics.
He concluded, “An active youth-ministry program creates a space, a pastoral setting, where young people begin to find their place in the Church as faithful Catholics.”
Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.
- July 17-30, 2011