As clergy ages, many called but few chosen
Every day, Fr. Jason Laguerta makes sure that he delivers a wonderful church service—his sermon appealing and relevant, the choir belting out soulful songs and the church, clean and adorned with nice decorations.
When not saying Mass at Holy Cross Parish Church in Barangay Tejeros, Makati City, he mingles with the small communities he has established in his parish or holds Mass in the streets to make people feel they belong.
Tending to the spiritual needs of 30,000 parishioners is no easy feat.
But Laguerta always aspires to be an inspiring shepherd to his flock because this is where the country can draw young men to priesthood to fill an aging clergy.
“There is an inability of the number of priests to cope with the growing Catholic population,” said Laguerta, also the vocations director of the Archdiocese of Manila.
In 2004, the ratio of Catholics per priest in the Philippines was 8,500. The figure ballooned to at least 11,500 Catholics per priest in 2010, an indication that the nation’s Catholic population is growing faster than the number of priests.
The archdiocese alone has 241 diocesan priests serving roughly 3 million Catholics in its jurisdiction—the cities of Makati, Manila, Pasay, San Juan and Mandaluyong. Of this number, 60 percent are nearing retirement, Laguerta told the Inquirer.
If seminaries do not fill up the slack, a vocation crisis may be possible in 15 years, Laguerta said.
Efforts to draw young men to enter the religious life have been carried out aggressively and creatively.
San Carlos Seminary, which is run by the Manila archdiocese, has been sending its seminarians to schools and staging vocation concerts in parishes and youth gatherings, hoping to inspire young men to serve God.
“But the key is really the presence of the priest in each parish,” stressed Laguerta, who teaches psychology at the seminary.
“If the priest is inspiring, he is able to attract young men and consider the vocation but if they get a horrible parish priest, zero,” he said.
Not that priesthood has become unattractive. Data showed that at least 185 priests were being ordained every year for the past 10 years.
The average number of defections— either defrocked or voluntary resignation—has been pegged at 23 a year.
From 2000 to 2010, there were at least two ordinations in each of the 86 dioceses in the country per year, said Laguerta, who conducted a study on the profile of the Filipino diocesan priestly vocation.
The study showed that the number of Filipino priests had jumped from 4,914 in 1999 to 5,742 in 2008. Major seminaries have also expanded from 62 in 2004 to 71 in 2008.
Over the last decade, the Philippine Catholic Church has also seen a fluctuating number of young men enrolled in the seminaries, with 4,186 seminarians in 1999 to peak in 2001 with 4,250, dipping six years later to 3,984 and jumping to 4,034 in 2008.
But seminary rectors have pegged the rate of those finishing the entire seminary program at 10 percent.
“In other words, for every 40 candidates who enter the seminary, only around four are able to finish,” Laguerta noted.
San Carlos Seminary produces at least 10 priests every year, according to its rector,
Msgr. Hernando Coronel. But this does not guarantee a priest for the Archdiocese of Manila every year.
“There are times that we don’t have a priest up for ordination for Manila because it just happens that we didn’t have candidates from Manila,” Coronel said.
Unlike last year when at least three seminarians from the Manila archdiocese were ordained, this school year, it had none.
“It’s hard to get vocations from the city than in provinces because in urbanized areas like Manila, young people have more options and they want freedom,” Coronel said.
According to Laguerta, the Church now hardly draws men from cities, where a “mall culture” has pervaded.
He also pointed out that religious life competed with what he described as “distractions”—like the glitter of latest new gadgets, the fast-evolving technology and the proliferation of social networking sites on the Internet.
“This technology and gadgets … in a way distance the youth from considering a life of service because these things are more for self-glorification and self-gratification,” he said. “They are antitheses to priesthood.”
He recounted that at San Carlos Seminary, seminarians on their first year had been asked to part with their cell phones. Some couldn’t let go and left the seminary in just two or three days, Laguerta said.
“Seminary life is a training to focus on prayer so how can you pray if time and again you have a text message, how can you focus on prayer, on your studies and other programs if you are always distracted?”
The seminary now allows seminarians to have their cell phones, at least on Sundays.
Not all pain
Many young people have also found other ways to serve God, rendering consecrated life as impractical. Not being able to marry also turns off many young men, Laguerta added.
“The prospect of it alone makes them squirm,” he said.
Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz said many had been discouraged of leading a life alone.
“But it’s more difficult to have a family because if you don’t have money to buy food, three or four people will go hungry instead of just you,” he said.
“Priesthood is a life easier than a married life,” said Cruz, judicial vicar of the National Appellate Matrimonial Tribunal for more than two decades now. “If a priest says that his life is difficult, then he doesn’t know what marriage is all about.”
But Laguerta said priesthood was not just about pain and sacrifices.
“It’s really more of the joy of serving God. True, you may not have a family of your own but certainly you have thousands of families and people will call you father,” he said, adding that priesthood can be liberating.
“When you lead your own life, you plan for this and that, what career path to take but when you become a priest, you will say, ‘Okay, do with me as you please. I voluntarily give everything about me, my talents, my skills, whatever I have to God and to the Church,’” he said.
San Carlos Seminary has been using this tack as a “marketing tool.”
Few are called
When young boys visited the seminary to see what was life like inside, Coronel said they would be shown the joy and beauty of serving Christ.
“We show them that the seminary is a happy community of men, a fraternity,” he said.
Cruz, who served as the seminary’s rector from 1973 to 1978, said the seminary’s current enrollment trend was the same as before.
It houses over 100 young men every year and after 12 years of formation, around eight or nine will become a priest, he pointed out.
“That is standard up to now so I have no perception that there is a vocation crisis now,” he said.
The ideal should be a priest tending to at least between 5,000 and 10,000 Catholics.
But the Church gets by with the current setup, careful that its meager shepherds won’t lose its large flock, Laguerta said.
But he stressed that it was still important that the Church got more priests because they remained relevant despite the lure of modern times.
People still need to be assured of the presence of God, he added.
“Many are called but a few are chosen and the Lord really calls,” Laguerta said.
“So we are not frustrated even if we end up with two or three … we are happy because at least we have a few who have been trained well who could effect change in the lives of 30,000 people.”
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.