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The crisis in Hispanic vocations

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Only 15 percent of new priests ordained nationwide in 2014 were Hispanic, compared to 67 percent white, 11 percent Asian/Pacific Islander and 4 percent African/African American. Less than 5 percent of new Hispanic priests are U.S.-born Latinos. With an ever-growing Hispanic Catholic population, those numbers do not match who's sitting in the pews. Nationally, Hispanics make up 38 percent of all Catholics compared to 54 percent whites. Yet Hispanic men, by and large, are not discerning the priesthood.

"We need to focus on the people the priests are standing in front of," said Father Joel D. Jaffe, director of the Arlington Office of Vocations.

Nearly 60 percent of the Hispanics living in the United States, or 30 million people, are estimated to be Catholic, with about 16 million born in the U.S. and 14 million foreign-born.

CARA numbers indicate that about 69 percent of the U.S. parishes known to serve specific racial, ethnic, cultural or linguistic communities specifically cater to the Hispanic community. In the Arlington Diocese, the Hispanic community numbers about 222,000 compared to 263,000 non-Hispanic whites, according to CARA.

The question is not so much whether an effort is being made to serve the Hispanic community; the question is how these efforts should be concentrated.

Father Jaffe believes one cause for the shortage in Hispanic vocations is that there simply is "not a strong enough emphasis on vocational discernment." He also pointed to the prevalence of Spanish-speaking Anglo-American and foreign-born priests serving U.S. Hispanic communities.

"Because there are a lot of foreign-born priests," Father Jaffe said, "(Hispanic) children think (priests) always come from elsewhere." He explained that Hispanic boys and men might have trouble identifying with priests hailing from another culture. Even if the priests are Hispanic, they are more likely to have been born in Latin America or Spain than the U.S. That distinction makes it more difficult for U.S.-born Hispanics to envision themselves in the same position of leadership, Father Jaffe said.

"How do you imagine a priest like you if you don't see (priests like you) represented?" Father Jaffe asked.

Father Jaffe said that since Hispanic culture emphasizes family, there is a big expectation for young men to get married and have children.

"Plus, there's the whole idea of machismo and how becoming a priest is not considered a macho thing to do," he said.

Many Hispanic immigrants may plan to stay in the U.S. for a short period, working seasonal or otherwise temporary jobs to send money back home to their families in Latin America. Father Jaffe explained that these short-term plans mean such men "are not invested in the diocese."

Then there is the matter of language. Father Jaffe and his assistant, Anne-Marie Minnis, both speak Spanish. They answer the phones in Spanish, write emails in Spanish and hold meetings in Spanish. They also produce a quarterly bulletin about local vocations news in English and Spanish.

"I knew the people needed a priest they could call their own, who cared for them and who could speak their language," wrote Father Jaffe in his Nov. 2014 bulletin letter, "Shepherds Needed for Hispanic Communities."

Beyond Language

But this is not just a language issue. Seventy percent of all U.S. Hispanics, Catholic or otherwise, are not immigrants; they are U.S.-born and English-speaking. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops cites education and financial constraints as central challenges to discerning Hispanic vocations.

Studies show that men are at least six times more likely to consider the seminary if they attended a Catholic high school. Only 3 percent of U.S. Hispanics attend a Catholic school.

While the cost of Catholic high school may be a burden to some families, the cost of a seminarian education is much greater, ranging from $33,000 to $40,000 per seminarian. In 2011, Laura Coleman and her husband, Bob, of Clifton started Arlington's seminarian education fund, which supports funding efforts "for the seminarians already committed to the diocese."

According to the USCCB, other factors that influence a man, regardless of race or ethnicity, to "seriously consider" a vocation are all "relational": participating in a parish youth group, receiving personal encouragement and personally knowing a priest or seminarian.

Currently the Diocese of Arlington has two Hispanic seminarians: Raymel de los Santos, 25, of the Dominican Republic, and Mauricio Portillo, 28, of El Salvador. Father Mauricio Pineda, also of El Salvador, was ordained last June. He now serves as a parochial vicar at All Saints in Manassas.

Seminarian De los Santos, whose home parish is Queen of Apostles in Alexandria, studies at Pontifical College Josephinum. He credits "the great example of a priest" for influencing his decision to answer God's call.

"(The priest's) love for Christ, for the church, and for his neighbors awakened in me the desire of becoming a priest," De los Santos said. "Furthermore, being an active member in my parish helped me to realize that this is the way I want to live my life, giving all I am for God's people."

Seminarian Portillo said praying every day for God to show him his vocation, seeing young people struggling with their faith, and meeting priests "who live with a great joy in their vocation" as his reasons for pursuing the priesthood.

Portillo is now studying at the seminary Hogar Sacerdotal Padre Laforet and the Universidad Eclesiástica San Dámaso in Spain, thanks to Arlington's new pilot program for native Spanish-speaking seminarians. Father Jaffe described San Dámaso as the best ecclesiastical institution in the Spanish-speaking world, saying that its rigorous entrance exam requires six to eight weeks of preparation. Portillo is the first participant in the pilot program between Arlington and San Dámaso.

Father Pineda had more than the hurdle of language on his path to the priesthood; he had the hurdle of religion. Growing up in Cojutepeque, El Salvador, Father Pineda was baptized Catholic but worshiped with Seventh-day Adventist neighbors. It wasn't until he was 15 that a few Catholic friends persuaded him to go to a meeting for Catholic charismatic youth. His childhood dreams of becoming a Seventh-day Adventist pastor were replaced with becoming a Catholic priest.

When he arrived in the U.S. at age 18, he spoke no English. He lived in Miami and Northern Virginia, working in construction with the hope of returning to El Salvador. But then he became involved with Stabat Mater, a secular Marian institute in McLean. Father Pineda began praying the rosary and going to Mass daily. In 2005, he met with Father Brian G. Bashista, then-diocesan vocations director, to discuss his desire to enter the priesthood. Though Father Bashista said Father Pineda had to improve his English to succeed, he encouraged him to apply to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa. After studying English there for a year, Father Pineda went to Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md.

Cross-cultural Communication

Even if the education, financial means and language needs are being met, the cultural barrier to discerning Hispanic vocations remains.

Father John G. Guthrie, associate director, Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations at USCCB, said that in some cultures, making eye contact when speaking to someone is the social norms. In others, such behavior is considered disrespectful. A parish may offer a Spanish Mass, but if Hispanic cultural practices are not understood and respected, that can cause discomfort and even animosity that would turn a man off to the priesthood.

In a USCCB webinar, called "Best Practices for Multicultural Parishes," Bishop Daniel Flores, chairman of Cultural Diversity in the Church, said, "The differences between cultures are very rich but can be a challenge. But that's not new; that's as old as the Gospel," said Flores. "Catholicism is a house that's meant to be big enough for all the cultures of the world."

Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, assistant director of Hispanic Affairs at the USCCB, also appeared on the webinar and said that one way to make Hispanics and other ethnic groups feel included in the life of the church is to "set judgment aside about (accents)."

Father Guthrie explained that cultural differences can persist in more serious ways, such as in the case of psychological evaluations for seminary admissions.

"Some (psychological) tests are objective, but others are more culturally bound," he said. Cultural misinterpretations in psychological tests may influence whether or not a man is offered admission to a seminary.

Attempting a Solution

Nationwide, various organizations are working to help Hispanics discern vocations. That help is becoming more and more available in person, in print and online.

One such initiative is ¡Oye! magazine, published by Claretian Publications. Established in 2004, the Chicago-based magazine reaches about 100,000 young Hispanic Catholics throughout the U.S. According to its mission statement, ¡Oye! urges "young people to consider the ways in which they might be called, whether they be in a lay commitment, marriage and Christian family life, or the priesthood or religious life."

Organized prayer groups and retreats, some designed specifically for Hispanic men or more general prayer groups, such as the St. Thérèse Vocation Society, put Hispanic vocations on the agenda.

Nov. 2-8 is National Vocation Awareness Week, where Catholics are encouraged to invite at least one person to consider a vocation to priesthood or consecrated life. To support this effort, the Office of Vocations and the Spanish Apostolate both printed the prayer for vocations in their latest bulletin. Currently more than 100 men and women are in formation for priesthood or religious life in the Arlington Diocese.

"Continuing to bring priests from outside the U.S. to serve the U.S. is not really helping," said Father Jaffe. "We need vocations from Hispanic communities to serve Hispanic communities."

Find out more

Learn more about the Arlington Office of Vocations online and on Facebook. Visit Arlington's Spanish prayer site.

Stoddard can be reached at cstoddard@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014