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

May 30, 1991|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In any event, he noted, it's clear enough that not all seminarians are cut out for the celibate life.

"We just had an alumni day two Sundays ago," said Krekelberg. "And we had 162 guys up here with their families."

At lunch, Yim leaned forward over his soup.

"You might not get caught breaking all the rules here. There are no patrolmen. But they can tell by your attitude," he said.

After his sophomore year, Yim said, he was almost thrown out of St. John's.

"Let's just say, he seemed like he was at a secular college," said Torres, seated at the same table. "He was one of the party-starters. He's mellowed out a lot. He's more into control."

Now, if all goes according to plan, Yim will begin graduate school this fall in Belgium. He still hadn't heard a formal acceptance message, and if the European plan falls through, he is prepared to attend St. John's Theologate next-door, where Torres will be.

But the odds against ordination are still long. From 60 students in the freshman class of 1973, President-Rector Luevano can think of just five who went on to be ordained.

In St. John's 1991 class, Torres said, enrollment fell from 25 to 14 over the last three years. Of the 14 remaining seniors, four have decided not to pursue the priesthood.

"I just hope and pray I can get to be one," Yim said. "But until the morning the bishop puts his hands on me, I won't know."

Wednesday Mass was at 11:40 a.m. Torres was near the back, in his blue windbreaker.

"Santo, santo, santo," the seminarians chant, now drowning out the chapel fountain. Holy, holy, holy.

The previous night's studying had gone until 3 a.m., and the work was far from done. Torres finished a paper on a key adviser to turn-of-the-century Mexican President Porfirio Diaz. But Nixon and Henry Ford remain prisoners of his word processor, and then there was this other thing on Aristotle's view of wisdom, and more beyond that.

"I can't do what Juan does," confided classmate Mike Sezzi later. "I'd panic after a while. It always gets done, though. And he always gets a better grade than me. That I don't understand."

Torres joined the seminary late. He had grown up in Los Angeles, part of a church-going family, but more committed to sports. After high school he went to Citrus Community College in Azusa and then to Cal State Fullerton, where he ran long-distance on the track team.

But when he was 21, he crossed paths with a priest who was "very charismatic, very in tune with the people. Up to that point, the only priests I had seen were old guys."

With just one semester remaining before graduation, he left Fullerton and enrolled at St. John's. Starting as a sophomore, he defrayed the $4,000 annual tuition with a part-time job washing dishes in the cafeteria.

That could have been the beginning of his happy ending, but it wasn't. During his first semester at St. John's, Torres' father began to suffer seizures and lost his job. His sister was told she had cancer. And one of his brothers was arrested in connection with a stolen car.

"I was thinking, 'I don't belong here,' " Torres said. "I thought I was doing the right thing, and suddenly everything was going wrong in my life."

At school, he wasn't used to the near-constant stream of extracurricular meetings and the combination of spiritual and academic demands. On his first summer away he met a young woman, and for a month he didn't know if he would be coming back. But he did, right on schedule.

Since then, his father has retired, his sister's cancer has gone into remission, and his brother's life seems to have settled down.

With Mass near an end, the seminarians rose to embrace and wish each other peace. Outside the door, Torres conferred with Yim--who had been up until 4 that morning--and headed back to commune with Ford, Nixon, and the word processor.

"A characteristic which can be attributed to Henry Ford and Richard Nixon," the paper began, "is that they were both hard workers . . . . "

Two hours later, on the basketball court, Yim was still testing possible approaches to the metaphysics discussion.

Torres, done thinking about papers for the moment, was testing his high-arc jump shot. It reached closer to heaven than most two-story buildings, but was not accurate.

The game was three against three, with a reporter, two cafeteria workers and another seminarian filling out the teams. During a break in the action, a female jogger bounded past in a red top. Heads turned. Then it was back to the game.

Torres took the ball, drove toward the hoop against Yim, then pulled up to capitalize on his six-inch-plus height advantage. In went the shot.

"Where are your morals?" asked Yim.

It was now five days short of final exams, 10 days from graduation. Darkness gathered on the campus, as did strange voices, visions and furtive plans.

The voices were those of a community choir, borrowing the chapel loft. Backed by a pair of guitars, the singers hit high notes that resounded across the deserted courtyard.

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