What’s behind the Latino priest shortage?
Gilbert Guzman is 51 and, in a way, he began a new career on June 2. He was ordained to the priesthood that day at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. While discernment is never easy, he said it was even more complicated as a Latino.
“You might get raised eyebrows if you say you want to be a priest. ‘What’s wrong with you that you don’t want to get married?’” Father Guzman told America. “We need to see ourselves as a gift to the community, not a scourge.”
Father Guzman, a self-described late vocation to the priesthood, said part of the struggle in his discernment was cultural. He was born in San Diego, just north of the U.S.-Mexico border. He describes himself as a Mexican-American and said his cultural background added “all sorts of complex forces” to the discernment process.
“You might get raised eyebrows if you say you want to be a priest. ‘What’s wrong with you that you don’t want to get married?’”
“Being Latino, there was a little more pressure to just go back and have a girlfriend and get married,” Father Guzman said. “I feel like that might have something to do with the number of Latino priests—the longing to really participate with family.”
The growing number of U.S. Latinos is not reflected in vocations to the priesthood. The Center of Applied Research for the Apostolate at Georgetown University reports that 20 percent of this year’s class of ordained priests are Hispanic. The number is a fraction of the estimated number of Latinos, who make up 34 percent of the nation’s Catholic population—and more than 50 percent of Catholics under 30.
“What I see is that Latinos in the United States are being bombarded by different cultural winds,” said Hosffman Ospino, an associate professor of Hispanic ministry and religious education at Boston College. “There is a materialism and a drive to take advantage of the society in which we live. The values of religious life are not prioritized.”
While discernment is never easy, it was even more complicated as a Latino.
For decades, the church in the United States has been relying on foreign-born priests, a solution that Mr. Ospino said was meant to be temporary. But the vast majority of Hispanic priests are still foreign-born.
“It is easier to discern when you’re in a country where 80 to 90 percent of people are Catholic,” he said. “In the United States, that is not the case. The more removed Latinos and Latinas are from active life in the church, the less likely it is they are going to speak to their children about being priests or sisters or brothers.”
In Latin America, priests tend to live with their families and often bring their parents to live with them in the rectory, Mr. Ospino said. “In the United States, if a priest has to take care of their family, they take a leave of absence. But in Latin America, there are different cultural expectations.”
The growing number of U.S. Latinos is not reflected in vocations to the priesthood.
The Queen of Angels Center for Priestly Formation in Gardena, Calif., hosts a number of Latinos discerning the priesthood. The Rev. James Anguiano, who had served as the center’s director until July, said that of the 30 men in discernment there, 23 are Latino.
“Many times, in Latino communities, the question is ‘How are you encouraging your own sons to respond?’” said Father Anguiano, now the associate director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He, like Father Guzman, said men feel pressure from their families to have kids.
“The thing I’ve run into more often, though, is men who have families that have fallen on hard times. They leave seminary to help their families financially, to help them survive, which is very honorable,” he said. But Father Guzman encourages men to talk to their families before making the decision to leave. Some parents, he said, might prefer that their son stay in seminary rather than leave to help the family financially.
Merely having Latino priests also contributes to vocations, Father Anguiano said, noting specifically the example of Archbishop José H. Gomez. Having these role models may seem obvious, but the Rev. Jorge Torres, the secretary of the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors, said it should not be overlooked. Latinos need to feel like their voices are heard.
“They leave seminary to help their families financially, to help them survive, which is very honorable.”
“The more leadership is open to the Latino community the more they will respond,” Father Torres said. “As the Latino community here grows, it’s not becoming Anglo. It’s becoming its own group.”
While their language preference may change, their Latino values remain, he said. “You sacrifice yourself for your family; you’re not looking out for number one; your faith is deeply ingrained,” Father Torres said. “There’s a strong work ethic, and we are very pro-life because of the large families. To take care of the poor and reach out to the immigrant, we do this because it’s in our blood.”
Father Torres is the vocations director in the Diocese of Orlando, Fla., where 50 percent of seminarians are Hispanic. He also noted the percentage of Latinos who go to college is a challenge both for priestly vocations and vocations to the religious life.
Education was another obstacle mentioned by Mr. Ospino, who is leading a two-year Boston College study into Latino vocations. Less than 17 percent of the Hispanic population has completed a college degree, compared to more than a third of all Americans over 25,according to the Census Bureau.
“The vast majority of Latinos are not considering going into seminary or even into service fields, like education or social work or the arts,” Mr. Ospino said, alluding to a study by Georgetown University. “They want to be doctors and business people. They want to be engineers.”
In the United States, Latinos who do complete their college education are more likely to be the first in their family to do so, he said. With their degree in hand, they feel even more pressure to help their family financially.
Latino seminarians, who see few Latino faculty members, do not always feel supported.
Mr. Ospino also noted a lack of Hispanic ministry offerings at seminaries. Latino seminarians, who see few Latino faculty members, do not always feel supported.
St. John Seminary in Camarillo, Calif., where Father Guzman attended, has begun hosting Latino theologians and speakers. But the difference is even more basic than Latino theology.
“Being Latino, we like lots of hugs and kisses, being asked about our well-being by our mothers, ‘How are you? How are you feeling? Are you hungry?’” Father Guzman said. “The hand on the shoulder, leaning against someone, the closeness of being fed. There are so many nonverbal signs of affection that we as Latin people miss.”
At Christmastime, he described a loneliness in the seminary. Latinos are ready for fiestas, when everyone is invited over. While they did have gatherings, “It’s just two hours and good night. What? You want to have a couple more drinks, and everyone leaves.”
“Latinos, we’re better at stuff like this. How we show joy in our bodies, through music and loud talking and food.”
While he was there, they asked 20 of the Latino seminarians’ mothers to help them celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12. “They cooked up a storm,” Father Guzman said. “They brought in the rose, the mariachi were playing during the Mass. I don’t know why, but my mother burst into tears, and then I’m crying because my mother is crying.”
Some had never heard mariachi before, he said. After Mass, the seminarians and their families enjoyed salsa, arroz con leche and other specialty dishes. And the mariachi continued.
“They didn’t know you could have music and food at the same time!” Father Guzman laughed. “Latinos, we’re better at stuff like this. How we show joy in our bodies, through music and loud talking and food. We know about the fiesta.”
But when that is not reciprocated, Latino seminarians can feel like they are unloved. Father Guzman described it as another cultural hurdle. But he is not discouraged.
“Every hardship can become a gift of grace when we trust in the Lord,” Father Guzman said. “We’re being stretched a little bit more. We can’t contain the infinite love and mercy of God. We have to see each person with fresh eyes, without any prejudice. As a priest, your very life becomes a testimonial of what it means to walk side by side with the Lord Jesus.”