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A Higher Calling : Diocese of Orange Looking for a Few Good Men

June 29, 1989|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

WANTED: Single men, any age, for entry-level position with longstanding international concern. Low pay, long hours, limited wardrobe. Requires five, possibly eight years training. Must be fluent in Spanish. Obedience to superiors, celibacy a must. Rewards, incentives almost entirely intangible. Promotion slow or nonexistent. Preferred jobs not guaranteed.

Not the sort of ad that would make you want to chuck that Beverly Hills corporate law practice and dive right in, is it? Or put that career as a pro shortstop on permanent hold? Or say "thanks but no thanks" to medical school?

But that's precisely what three Orange County men did. And right now, there are 92 others from the county like them working hard, and praying harder, hoping to fill that job. They look forward to it, they say, with greater fervor and anticipation than they have for any other event in their lives. For them, landing that job will be the realization of a dream, the beginning of what they see as an exalted future.

Sure it's tough, they say. But they can't see themselves being truly happy with anything other than ordination to the Roman Catholic priesthood.

"I grew up planning to be a doctor and to go to UCI for premed," said Tim Freyer, 25, of Huntington Beach, who is now Father Tim Freyer, the result of his ordination early this month. "I wanted the nice house and the family and the luxuries. But at the end of my junior year at Huntington Beach High School, I decided I'd be much happier (being a priest). I'd thought that medicine was important in helping people, but I wanted to help the whole person, in this life and in the next.

"The best thing for me is that I've been able to follow the call of the Lord, and because of that, I've been able to experience a lot of love and friendship with the people I've worked and studied with. I could never be as happy doing anything else."

Neither could Cirilo Flores, 40, of Costa Mesa, who gave up a Beverly Hills corporate law practice to study for the priesthood. Or Juan Hernandez, 28, of Santa Ana, a former semi-pro shortstop who hung up the spikes and glove in favor of a Roman collar and a breviary.

All three men are products of St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, the only Catholic seminary in Southern California. It is a school for diocesan, or parish, priests, who are, said Father Daniel Murray, the director of vocations for the Diocese of Orange, "the general practitioners of the church." Upon their ordinations, the new home-grown Orange County priests return to the county and are assigned to a parish here.

They are perhaps the most visible of the county's priests, differing in their influence and duties from priests in specific religious orders who study at seminaries outside California, such as the Norbertines (who teach at Mater Dei and Santa Margarita high schools, maintain an abbey in El Toro and study theology in Rome), the Servites (who teach at Servite High School, do hospital chaplaincy work and have their seminary in St. Louis) or the various Trinity Missionaries, Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans and others.

The diocesan priest is the church's Jack-of-all-trades. He celebrates daily Mass, hears confessions, performs baptisms, visits sick parishioners, helps organize bingo, trains altar boys, preaches sermons, conducts funerals and in general ministers to a specific flock.

In many locations throughout the country, the ranks of diocesan priests are thinning, and few young men are coming up to fill the jobs. However, Freyer and four other Orange County diocesan candidates were ordained June 10. That's one more than the number of priests who were ordained on the same day in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the largest Catholic diocese in the nation. The Archdiocese of Boston, another large and traditional Catholic enclave, ordained only five this year.

But in Orange County, gains in religious vocations of all kinds are expected in the next few years, said Murray.

"I like to think that we have a lot of good priests who have provided good role models for the young people coming up to admire," said Murray. "It also, I think, reflects the enthusiasm of Bishop Norman McFarland (bishop of the Diocese of Orange) for religious vocations. He's been very outspoken about it."

Seminarians also say they feel that the relative youth of the Diocese of Orange--it was formed in 1976--lends a kind of pioneering enthusiasm to the prospect of becoming a priest.

And in central Orange County in particular, priests are beginning to emerge from traditionally devout Vietnamese Catholic families. One of the five priests ordained this month was Joseph Nguyen, 25, a Vietnamese refugee who had early seminary training in Vietnam and who was graduated from St. John's.

Whatever their motivation, however, the candidates for the diocesan priesthood in Orange County are faced with a long road. They cannot simply announce their desire for ordination and snap on the collar.

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