Church wrestles with shortage of Latino priests

The Rev. Rene Mena didn't realize what he was getting into when he came to the U.S. to become a priest.

"I expected the church in the U.S. to be just like Mexico," he said. "I thought I was going to be like a monk, you know, and wear a long, white cassock."

Instead, Mena said he makes house calls to the sick, baptizes children by the dozen and worries about the homeless in Little Village. At his church's Augustfest, he wore a plaid shirt as he swept up napkins from the sidewalk in front of St. Agnes of Bohemia Catholic Church.

"Here you have to be a priest with the people, of the people, for the people," he said.

Mena is the product of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago's main solution for a shortage of Latino priests - foreign imports.

Casa Jesus targets Latin American men and recent arrivals to recruit and train future priests who can speak Spanish, relate to Latino cultures and act as role models for Hispanic youths. The program prepares them to enroll in U.S. seminaries.

Partly due to American materialism and the cross-cultural aversion to celibacy, local parishes aren't producing many Hispanic seminarians, according to clerics familiar with the situation.

So the Church relies on Casa Jesus. But after 20 years of the program, the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago estimates it has 1.2 million Spanish speakers and about 37 Latino priests, including about 30 from the program. It also estimates the Hispanic population in its territory will grow about 11 percent from 2005 to 2010.

"If you add all those numbers, you don't have enough to have one priest per community," said Rev. Claudio Diaz Jr., director of Hispanic Ministry for the archdiocese. "My God, you can't even really say who's at the top of that list of parishes in real need for a Hispanic priest."

The Chicago archdiocese is struggling to meet the needs of a church community where 42 percent of the parishioners speak Spanish and about 17 percent speak only Spanish, church officials said. And that's not counting the unknown number of unregistered congregants, Diaz said.

"There are very few priests with the cultural and language abilities to help serve these people," said Rev. Alejandro Garrido, director of Casa Jesus. "We're trying to help them as well as the larger need for priests."

Learning the language

Casa Jesus occupies a former nunnery at 750 N. Wabash Ave., two blocks west of the Magnificent Mile. It runs an English language and cultural immersion program where Latino men live at the house to prepare for St. Joseph College Seminary at Loyola University or for the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein.

The program hasn't changed much since it opened with four students, said Garrido, who was one of those original students.

Casa Jesus is home to 12 students this year, and the newbies just arrived for orientation. Recruits have included foreign seminarians, ice cream truck drivers, teachers, factory workers and youth group leaders.

A few are already familiar with the U.S. But many students, such as Jose Chavez, are starting from scratch. He came from Colombia, a philosophy teacher, hoping to help immigrants. He had never before set foot in the U.S., he said in Spanish.

For orientation, the students have been free to speak Spanish as they unpack their clothes, test out the pingpong table in the basement and chat over plates of pizza and enchiladas. But as the year passes, English will become the norm.

Days begin with Mass at 7 a.m., English as a Second Language classes at University of Illinois at Chicago and weekends volunteering at adopted parishes for about $50 a week.

So far it's an energetic bunch, said Becky Swab, an ESL instructor at the university. Men from Casa Jesus and the students in Abramowicz House, the Polish equivalent, got a head start before the other ESL students join class this week.

While learning phrases such as "I am standing" and "I drink water," the students seemed to be good-humouredly competing to see who could be the orneriest on a limited vocabularies.

Dramatic gasps greeted Chavez's declaration of "I - don't - like - Coca-Cola."

Across from him, Fermin Cavazos broke into a grin and used the chance to practice subject-verb agreement.

"You - are - crazy," he recited. "You are crazy. He - is - crazy."

Students said they're having blast learning about the Loop and "Da Bears" and visiting City Hall and Navy Pier.

"They're very motivated now because they've been here three days," Swab said. "Right now they're like 'Yeah! We love English.' In three weeks it will be 'Oh, we hate English.'"

And the education system is becoming more demanding.

Local seminaries are requiring higher language and culture test scores before students can start this year.

Rev. Thomas Baima, provost for St. Mary of the Lake, said the schools are trying to end a habit of settling for remedial academic performances while students bring their English skills up to speed.

Casa Jesus alumnus Rev. Adan Sandoval, for example, said he flunked his first class at St. Joseph College. Sandoval said he even tried taking an audio recorder to lectures.

"I remember spending a lot of time after class trying to understand what the class was about," he said. "If I wanted to be a priest, I had to pass these classes. So I asked God for help and I prayed and studied harder."

"Plugging holes"

Most students finish the program at Casa Jesus, but only about 60 percent go on to become Catholic priests, Garrido said. The program has produced some 30 ordained alumni, which Garrido said is pretty good.

Although Casa Jesus has completed 20 school years, it can take an additional two years of pre-theology and fours years of graduate work to earn a master's degree in divinity and be ordained.

And graduates are supposed to serve the whole archdiocese, not just Latinos.

Rev. Adan Sandoval was assigned to Orland Park after his ordination in May. He grew up as the eighth of eleven children from a little Mexican mountain town named Santa Maria. Now he preaches in one of Money magazine's picks in 2006 for the top 50 places to live in the U.S.

He's a hit there, but Spanish skills aren't essential.

Predominantly Anglo parishes are in search of priests too. The Chicago area had 910 priests active in parish work in 1985 compared to about 636 in 2007, according to church records. During the same period the Catholic population shrunk but only a fraction of a percent.

In addition to the Casa Jesus graduates, Hispanic Ministry's Diaz estimates there are about 10 other Latino priests in the archdiocese. He said they mostly ended up in the seminary through week-long programs for immigrants or through initiatives that don't specifically target Latinos.

Casa Jesus isn't filling the need fast enough as the main archdiocese Latino recruiting program, said Rev. Matthew Foley, who works with two Casa Jesus alumni at St. Agnes of Bohemia.

"We're just plugging holes with foreigners," he said. "It's not getting to the root of the problem."

Many agreed that local recruits, particularly bilingual second-generation youths, are the missing element. But no one seems to know how to attract young Chicago Hispanics.

Most Mexican immigrants are buying into the American dream - money and class mobility, said Teresa Galvan, a parishioner at St. Maurice Catholic Church in Chicago's McKinley Park. U.S. parents want doctors and lawyers, not priests, for children, she said, and the children would prefer just to play video games.

Non-Hispanic sectors of the church are having the same problems, but they're magnified for Latinos because of the surge in the Mexican immigrant population, Chicago priests said.

Foley said the church needs to open up to marriage and female leadership in order to attract and retain seminarians.

A few blocks from Foley's church, Jose Landaverde, a married Casa Jesus graduate, founded Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission, an Anglican parish. Landaverde said is is meant to show Latinos they have religious options.

The Catholic Church shouldn't give up men like Landaverde, Foley said. He recommended running Casa Jesus like a military ROTC program, requiring a set amount of service as lay volunteers in return for the education.

Students buy their own plane tickets, but the church pays the $24,000 per student for tuition, rent and board through private and parish donations. At the end of the program, there's no obligation to serve the church

But men do work in parishes while at Casa Jesus, and Garrido said a ROTC-style initiative would discourage people from trying the program.

Mixing and matching

Still, with 148 of more than 360 parishes providing Spanish ministry, non-Hispanic priests are taking care of most Latino Catholics, said Diaz of the Hispanic Ministry.

Bilingualism has gone from optional 20 years ago to an assumption in Chicago for Latino and non-Hispanic clergy, church officials said.

Spanish Masses at St. Maurice Catholic Church begin with "Buenos dias." But, unlike most of his parishioners in McKinley Park, Rev. Michael Boehm is not from Mexico.

Despite mutual affection, parishioners and Boehm said Latinos deserve Hispanic priests to represent them.

"We love all priests as long as they're priests," Estella Abundiz said at St. Maurice. "But we do feel more comfortable with Mexican people."

The Catholic Church is dealing with a tangle of demands.

Many Hispanic immigrants want Masses in Spanish, but sometimes their children prefer English. Even people who like English services often want a priest literate in Hispanic culture, however.

Then there's Rev. Jose Antonio Delgado, a Peruvian Casa Jesus alumnus. He said that just when his parishioners in Little Village started to compliment his grasp of Mexican slang, he moved to a parish on the Northwest Side with fewer Mexicans.

Delgado said the Mexican jokes he picked up don't make sense to his new Puerto Rican parishioners, and the Guatemalans aren't too fond of Mexican food. When he prayed for a Mexican soccer victory, a man came up after Mass and pointed out that Mexico was playing Ecuador. So why wasn't God cheering for Ecuador too?

"What I hear through my Peruvian ears, I might not have understood," he said. "It would be easier if we came from a homogenous background, but we don't."

St. Genevieve Catholic Church in the Craigin neighborhood is on the road to becoming a completely Latino parish, Delgado said. Half the Masses are in English, but the attendees are getting grayer and fewer. He estimates the parish is already more than 90 percent Hispanic.

"We need Latino priests and Casa Jesus does a good job preparing us," Delgado said. "It's not standard ministry from a can anymore. You have to adjust, and sometimes the only common ground will be our faith."