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Holy Orders

For Three Local Priests, the First Year Proved the Necessity of Faith, Submission and Acceptance of Joy

January 18, 1998|Patrick Mott | Patrick Mott is the editor of Orange Coast magazine

Becoming a Catholic priest, the three men will tell you, is a bit like becoming a skydiver: The prospect sounds both frightening and exhilarating, the preparation is thorough and well-grounded, and the tools of the trade are well-tested and reliable. But until you actually do it, there's no way to know what it's really like. It is a leap of faith.

Stephen Davoren, Dominic Hoa Nguyen and Charles "Chip" Mayer have had the honorific "father" appended to their names for more than a year. They are in the vanguard of a new American priestly archetype. They are all in their early to middle 30s, older than newly ordained priests of one or two generations ago. Two of them entered the seminary after working in other professions, something all but unheard of in the pre-Vatican II Church.

All are diocesan priests--general practitioners who staff local parishes; all attended St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, where most diocesan priests from Southern California get their education. They are intelligent and unpragmatic. All are determined to remain consistently visible and available to their parishioners--qualities not necessarily shared by the priests they knew growing up.

They freely acknowledge the struggles: long hours, heavy workloads, including wrenching emotional moments beside deathbeds, in the confessional, in intensive-care wards. They grapple with the issues of celibacy and personal freedom and must face daily a parish full of spiritually hungry people whose demands for time and solicitude at times can be greater than the priests' capacity to give.

None have regrets. They are happy men who would be nowhere else, fiercely dedicated to their parishioners, in whom they see both a reason for being and an antidote for isolation. They are clear-eyed men who believe in the words of the Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton: "In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything."

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St. John's seminary sits on the side of a low hill above Camarillo, surrounded by farms and citrus and avocado orchards. It is lushly landscaped, quiet and serene. Higher on the hill is the seminary college, where the undergraduates study. The older theology campus, built in 1940, houses the four-year graduate school, where the faculty and more than 100 seminarians live. It is easy to find, lovely to visit. Gaining admission, however, is more complicated.

Applicants do not make snap decisions. The call to priesthood almost never appears with thunderclap suddenness. It can germinate as a result of a Catholic school education, a suggestion by a solicitous priest or teacher, a positive spiritual experience (or many), a growing attraction to a life of service, a deepening personal spiritual life--or many reasons in combination. And every calling is particular to the individual. In the end, it is a growing conviction that the priesthood is where one belongs, that such a life would fill a place in a man's heart the way no other vocation could.

A priestly calling, however, is not automatic. It must be examined, prayed over, discussed. This process is what the church calls discernment. The average period of discernment is about one year, though some men may take more time. There are frequent meetings with diocesan vocations directors and, often, sessions with chosen spiritual directors--priests or other religious officials who act as spiritual counselors during an applicant's discernment.

If a man decides to apply, he must pass physical and psychological examinations and the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and obtain letters of recommendation from his diocesan vocations director, his pastor, his last employer or a faculty member from the last school he attended. He must submit a detailed autobiography and provide thorough written answers to questions about his motivation to be a priest.

Finally, he will be interviewed by three separate panels composed of seminary faculty members.

It is a process designed in part to winnow out the indecisive, the insincere, the confused and the troubled. And much of that winnowing occurs early on. An applicant's pastor must recommend him to the diocesan vocations director, who, in turn, must recommend him to the seminary. Most don't make it that far. In the office of Msgr. Daniel Murray, vocations director for the Diocese of Orange, there is a library-style rack of card catalog drawers. On each card are names of men who approached Murray with the idea of becoming a priest but who did not reach the seminary--hundreds of them. Murray estimates that of all the people who entertain the idea of a priestly vocation, only 20% pursue serious discernment.

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