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Seminary Days : The old rules--and the student body's ethnic makeup--have changed at St. John's.


Tuesday the seminarians fought sleep.

But that was no surprise, really. This was May 14, and the two of them, Juan Torres and Phil Yim, had been keeping some strange hours out there on the Camarillo hilltop that holds St. John's Seminary College.

Papers were falling due. Final exams were looming. Faith, commitment and celibacy were being considered and reconsidered. Burger-related curfew violations were in the works. Madonna was on the television. And the campus administration was in the heat of an unprecedented campaign to redefine the institution from top to bottom.

It was a great time to be a seminarian, if you had the constitution for it. And it was an opportune time to follow two of them through three days of seminary life.

As on every weekday, Tuesday's services began at 7 a.m. Most of the men made it, wearing sweat shirts, jeans, slacks and tennis shirts, blinking away sleep, aiming one day to be ordained priests in the Roman Catholic Church. The burble of the chapel fountain scrambled their prayers while sunlight seeped through the stained glass above.

Torres rose, dressed and strode to chapel, leaving his Vibiana Hall dorm room in the usual seminarian's disorder.

On the door of his room, someone had scrawled his nickname: "Butthead." In the guts of his word processor, a history paper on Richard Nixon and Henry Ford awaited a conclusion. Elsewhere in the room: eight Bibles, a crucifix, walking staff, a 10-speed and a beers-of-the-world poster.

Yim dozed in nearby Bonaventure Hall, an hour from the new day's first Marlboro Light, several pages from finishing a metaphysics paper. He missed services. But he got up in time for his first academic obligation.

"Senioritis," diagnoses Torres later.

Juan Torres is 27 years old and above six feet tall. He comes from a Spanish-speaking household in a Los Angeles barrio, the middle child among nine. On visits home, he shares a bedroom with brothers ages 19 and 23. On long-distance runs, he prays. He wears braces on his teeth and speaks mostly when spoken to.

Phil Yim is 21 years old and 5-foot-6. He was born in Korea, raised mostly in Orange County. He has one older brother. He prays while listening to Duke Ellington and Wynton Marsalis, walks the campus in French jeans and Ralph Lauren shirts. Conversationally, he is a filibuster waiting to happen.

Contrasts notwithstanding, both hold B averages. Both will begin theologate studies in the fall. And both aim to join the new generation of Roman Catholic priests.

"There's nothing special about it," Yim said. "Except that somehow, through me, God's working."

The St. John's campus is a quiet place, but not an uneventful one.

For more than 20 years, while the Vatican II reforms of 1962-65 resounded through the Roman Catholic Church worldwide, St. John's Seminary College held onto its reputation as a conservative school. The campus, which moved from Los Angeles to Camarillo in 1961, was known as a place where seminarians were rigorously "formed" for priesthood, never indulged.

But last year, faced with a continuing shortage of priests worldwide and a widening cultural gap between nonwhite seminarians and their usually white teachers, church leaders took a bold stroke.

When St. John's President-Rector Sylvester Ryan was promoted to the post of auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, church officials replaced him with Father Rafael Luevano. Luevano, 36, became the youngest leader in the institution's history, its first Latino leader, and one of the youngest college presidents in the nation.

Luevano's agenda: to make the place more sensitive to its students' increasingly diverse backgrounds; to give seminarians an education that is neither cloistered nor casual; to stress individuality and responsibility in an institution that had long relied on conformity and obedience. That strategy is vital, Luevano argued, with a student body one-third Asian, one-third Latino and one-third Anglo.

In the last year, the administration stopped assigning seats for prayers and discontinued its formal Monday-night dinners. College officials started giving all students a variety of privileges they formerly earned when they became seniors.

The school has also opened the field of possible majors from two (philosophy and liberal studies) to four (philosophy, English, Spanish and liberal studies) and begun accepting mid-year transfers.

Sunday Mass is occasionally celebrated on Saturday night. The dress code, which discourages jeans in class, is often overlooked. The curfew, officially 11 on weeknights and midnight on weekends, is largely left to personal discretion. Televisions and microwave ovens now are tolerated in dorm rooms.

"I want to teach them to take responsibility for themselves," Luevano said in a recent interview. "It means taking some risks, but they're calculated, and carefully observed. I don't think whether a guy's wearing jeans or black pants in the hallway is going to upset the doctrine of the church."

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