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Upbeat future for priesthood? 3 California seminarians who answered call

By Jaqueline Hurtado, CNN
updated 12:21 AM EST, Thu February 27, 2014
gay catholics pope sidner pkg_00021808.jpg
gay catholics pope sidner pkg_00021808.jpg
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Catholic Church says seminary enrollments are up across the country
  • But Los Angeles church leaders say many drop out of seminary
  • Three seminarians describe their path toward becoming priests
  • Los Angeles Archdiocese urges youths to consider religious life with a new video

Camarillo, California (CNN) -- In the Catholic Church's effort to remedy its shortage of clergy, Juan Jose Ochoa is a seminarian planning to become a priest, part of a trend of rising national enrollment in seminaries, though graduation rates remains low.

Ochoa was 6 years old when he became very curious about the church.

"One of the passions I had since I was a child was always to celebrate Mass," he said.

Now attending St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, California, Ochoa said he knew early on that his calling was the church and he wanted to dedicate his life to God.

"I can say that it was because of the love I felt for God, that I wanted to answer with that love," he said. "That really sealed my vocation and reaffirmed my dream of wanting to be a priest."

Father Craig Cox, director of St. John's Seminary, counts 87 men preparing for the priesthood in this spring's class. That is the highest number of seminarians in recent memory, he said. He said many will come in, but fewer will graduate.

"I have a lot of faith and comfort that God is working in the hearts of many of these men every day, and I'm optimistic about the future," Cox told CNN.

Answering the call to the priesthood

In 2008, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles had the highest ordination class in decades, with 12 men ordained priests. This year, however, they expect only five.

Father and son join priesthood together

"When there's fewer priests, it's harder to improve the ability for each priest to serve their community," Cox said.

Though the church has been reeling from priest pedophilia scandals -- and alleged coverups by church hierarchies -- the church is now seeing seminary enrollment across the country rise by 13% the past 10 years, to almost 3,700 from 3,285.

Countering the scandal-induced woes, Pope Francis is widely credited with initiating a revival in the church.

The Los Angeles Archdiocese is now trying to further boost those enrollments by preparing a 13-minute video that will be shown in Catholic schools. "Follow Me: Journeys to Priesthood" will highlight how the rising enrollment also reflects increased diversity, with seminarians from Mexico, Uganda, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Father Samuel Ward, associate director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, says there's a shortage of priests because many of them are retiring.

"In the last couple of decades, the situation in our society in general has a crisis in faith," Fr. Ward said. "Also, parents are having less children and when there's less kids, moms often want to have grandchildren and they don't want to give their children to the church."

Ochoa said he believes a reason behind the shortage is that people are afraid of commitment.

"People don't want to commit their entire life," he said. "We see that in our society when there are more people not getting married, they opt only to live together. More than 50% of the people who get married get divorced. I think this has to do with the environment in our society."

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, there are 412,236 priests worldwide, with about 39,600 of them in the United States.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the largest Catholic diocese in the country, has 287 churches and 1,049 priests. But the archdiocese says 183 of those priests are retired, sick or inactive.

Another seminarian at St. John's, Luis Estrada, is contributing to the rising enrollment trend.

He has wanted to be a priest since childhood.

"I was 12 years old, and we were at services on Ash Wednesday and I remember telling my dad I wanted to be a priest," Estrada said. "I don't remember what motivated me, if it was the priest himself that day or something else, but I remember that was the first time it crossed my mind."

Estrada said he later spoke to his priest about wanting to serve God. He said the priest told him to pray and if it was really in him, he would hear the calling.

Estrada said that calling, however, didn't come until he was well into his 30s. He said the years allowed him to become a more well-rounded person.

"Each experience has made me more mature," he said. "I think it's called the university of life, where those experiences will help us connect more with the people that we are going to serve."

Gilbert Guzman came to St. John's after 19 years with the Los Angeles Unified School District, where he was a bilingual teacher. Like Estrada, Guzman's path to his calling took years.

"As a teacher in a public school, I couldn't talk about religion or the spiritual side of learning," he said. "I wanted to be able to talk about the gospel."

Guzman said that when the school district offered him a promotion to become a principal, his initial reaction was to refuse it, but he couldn't comprehend why. That led him back to his parish priest, who told Guzman that God may have another plan for him.

Guzman said it was at that moment he heard the Holy Spirit.

"I think my life before was God preparing me for priesthood," he said.

Guzman joined the seminary last year and said he's learn a lot since then.

It's touched me that I need to be humble and learn to take orders. It has been a time of transformation and spiritual renovation."

Like Ochoa, Guzman and Estrada attend St. John's Seminary.

Father Craig Cox, director of the seminary, counts 87 men preparing for the priesthood in this spring's class. That is the highest number of seminarians in recent memory, he said. He said many will come in, but fewer will graduate.

"I have a lot of faith and comfort that God is working in the hearts of many of these men every day, and I'm optimistic about the future," Cox told CNN.

In 2008, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles had the highest ordination class in decades, with 12 men ordained priests. This year, however, they expect only five.

"When there's fewer priests, it's harder to improve the ability for each priest to serve their community," Cox said.

Next month, Ochoa, who is currently a deacon, will become Father Ochoa, and he said he's ready.

"I want to be God's instrument and a bridge to connect God with the people and the people with God," he said.

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