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Diocese of San Bernardino Catholic population: 1.6 million (sixth largest in U.S.)Area served: Riverside and San Bernardino countiesParishes: 92Diocesan priests: 51Priests from religious orders assigned to diocese: 117Ratio of priests to parishioners: 1 to...

‘Bumper crop’ of new priests doesn’t make dent in shortage in local diocese

Diocese of San Bernardino Catholic population: 1.6 million (sixth largest in U.S.)Area served: Riverside and San Bernardino countiesParishes: 92Diocesan priests: 51Priests from religious orders assigned to diocese: 117Ratio of priests to parishioners: 1 to...

‘Bumper crop’ of new priests doesn’t make dent in shortage in local diocese

Diocese of San Bernardino

Catholic population: 1.6 million (sixth largest in U.S.)

Area served: Riverside and San Bernardino counties

Parishes: 92

Diocesan priests: 51

Priests from religious orders assigned to diocese: 117

Ratio of priests to parishioners: 1 to 6,117

— Sources: Diocese of San Bernardino

Catholic population: 1.6 million (sixth largest in U.S.)

Area served: Riverside and San Bernardino counties

Parishes: 92

Diocesan priests: 51

Priests from religious orders assigned to diocese: 117

Ratio of priests to parishioners: 1 to 6,117

— Sources: Diocese of San Bernardino

The youngest of five siblings raised by Vietnamese-refugee parents in Pomona, Hau Vu was the one child without muscular dystrophy.

It is a progressively debilitating disease that took the lives of both his brothers and prompted him to ask questions.

“I would have normal conversations with God, asking, ‘Why my brothers and sisters?’ ” Vu said.

An answer came to the 6-foot-4 Vu: To comfort others who suffer.

Vu was inspired by his siblings’ unwavering faith to go into the ministry.

On Saturday, Vu, 28, and five other men are to be ordained priests in the Diocese of San Bernardino, which serves the 1.6 million Catholics living in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

“This is a bumper crop,” said Sister Sarah Shrewsbury, who as director of vocations heads up a program that recruits and nurtures future priests. “We haven’t had six guys get ordained since eight years ago.” The number is triple the class of 2015.

“But, in reality, it’s a drop in the bucket,” Shrewsbury said. “We have to have a lot more than that.”

Like other Roman Catholic districts in Southern California, and around the United States, the diocese has been scrambling to keep pace amid a surging membership and shrinking supply of priests.

Way of Woolworth’s?

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, during the last half-century, the number of priests in this country has declined from near 60,000 to fewer than 40,000. Yet, the Catholic population has swelled from 48.5 million to 81.6 million.

Put another way, the national ratio of active diocesan priests per parish slid from 2 to 1 in 1965 to 1 to 1 by 2015, the Georgetown center says.

In the Diocese of San Bernardino, the shortage is far more acute. The area has barely one diocesan priest for every two parishes.

For now, Shrewsbury said, religious orders are supplying priests to fill the gap. “We are very fortunate to have them,” she said. “What would we do if we didn’t?”

Priests are crucial in the life of the church, as they are authorized to administer several key events, Shrewsbury said.

“The fact is, without the priest, there is no Mass,” she said.

Diocese spokesman John Andrews said there is but one priest for every 6,117 parishioners. According to the Georgetown center, the diocese has one of the most lopsided ratios in the U.S.

With shortages locally and elsewhere, Deborah Rose-Milavec, executive director of the Cleveland-based advocacy group FutureChurch, has been sounding the alarm for 25 years. The group worries that at some point, the church will disappear.

“Is the Catholic church going the same way as Woolworth’s or some other corporation that couldn’t adapt to the times?” Rose-Milavec asked, in a telephone interview last week.

Dire predictions

To reverse the trend, she maintained the answer is to open the priesthood to married men and to women. And, so, Rose-Milavec was encouraged by Pope Francis’ unveiling last week of a plan to create a commission to explore the idea of women deacons.

“It’s an extremely huge development,” she said. “It’s a development of historic proportions.”

Not everyone agrees the downward trend is leading to an eventual closing of church doors and that the institution’s survival requires abandonment of the celibate priesthood model.

“The dire predictions of this group, I think, are off base,” said Father Samuel Ward, associate director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which serves Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

There’s no question there is a need for more priests, Ward said. But Ward is encouraged by the daily calls he said he receives from 17-, 18- and 19-year-old males expressing interest in the ministry.

“If there was no one being ordained and our seminaries were empty and my phone was never ringing, then I’d be worried,” he said.

‘This one is going to be a priest’

But as it is, next month four priests are to be ordained in the Diocese of Orange, said Ryan Lilyengren, a spokesman for the nation’s 10th largest Catholic district. And Ward said nine are to be ordained in the Los Angeles archdiocese, the nation’s largest with 5 million Catholics.

Then there are the half dozen set to be ordained in a ceremony Saturday at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Chino Hills. They are: Tomas Guillen of Moreno Valley, Carlos Martinez of Apple Valley, Jose Antonio Orozco of Palm Springs, Dominic Vu of Riverside, Pomona’s Hau Vu and Ken Vu of Orange County (no relations to each other).

Each has his own story of initial call and long journey to get to this point.

While there was Hau Vu’s response to siblings’ suffering, Apple Valley native Carlos Martinez seemed to be groomed from infancy.

When merely six days old, Martinez was taken to his first Mass at Holy Family Parish in Hesperia. Afterwards, his parents walked up to the priest.

“And my mom said, ‘Look, Father, I have my baby,’ showing me to him,” Martinez said. “Then he placed his index finger gently on my forehead and said, ‘This one is going to be a priest.’ She didn’t think too much of it at the time.”

But, he said, “It turned out to be prophetic 30 years later.”

Not about the books

Growing up in a devout family, Martinez spent much of his life around the church, providing leadership at youth activities and Big Bear mountaintop retreats en route to graduating from Apple Valley High School in 2003.

In 2006, he entered St. Junipero Serra House of Formation in Grand Terrace, where local seminarians launch their journey to the priesthood. He finished his journey at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo.

It has been a challenging journey, and at times studies were overwhelming. He forced himself to pause on occasion.

“It wasn’t about the books,” Martinez said, “it was about the people.”

The scandal

There are a number of reasons for the shortage. For starters, the priesthood doesn’t carry as much prestige in the U.S. as it once did, experts say.

As a result, said the Diocese of Orange’s Lilyengren, many new priests come from minority and immigrant families.

“Being a priest in the Vietnamese-American community is the equivalent of being a doctor in another community,” he said.

Then there was the widespread sex abuse scandal.

“It’s had a tremendously destructive role, in terms of the credibility of bishops and priests in the Catholic church,” Rose-Milavec said.

“Many people walked away after that. Many young people. We’re missing a whole generation in the Catholic church at this point,” she said. “It has had an absolutely crippling effect.”

‘Hypersexed’ world

No doubt, said Ward, the Los Angeles vocations director, the scandal was a “horrible chapter.” But he said that doesn’t mean the church should discard the celibate priesthood.

“It’s a sign and a witness for a hypersexed world that knows no boundaries, it seems,” Ward said. “A witness of purity and chastity that the church and the world needs.”

Ward added that he personally doesn’t feel the need to marry.

“My ministry is fruitful and joyful as a celibate priest,” he said. “I have thousands of spiritual children that I love and care for.”

As for the 6-foot-4 Hau Vu, he began his journey about the time scandal headlines swept the country.

It was sad, he said. But Vu said it underscored the need for more priests of character.

“It didn’t discourage me,” he said. “I think it inspired me.”

Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.

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