The Chosen Few
The Priesthood Looks for New Recruits
Larry D’Anjou is looking for a few good men. Not for the Marines, but for the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Diocese Oakland. As director of vocations, he’s looking for men to sign on for a life of sacrifice, service and celibacy. A hard sell? It depends on who’s doing the cold-calling. “The way the church teaches us,” says D’Anjou, a priest, “it’s a call that comes through the sacrament of baptism.” In other words, it’s God, himself, on the line.
But in too many parishes, the call goes unanswered. Whether it’s the high-profile abuse cases that have plagued the Catholic church or just society’s shifting values, a shortage of priests is forcing the church to make uncomfortable changes. “In a number of places,” he says, “It’s not that unusual for a priest to cover two or three parishes.”
Oakland, perhaps surprisingly, is bucking the odds. Designating D’Anjou as a full-time recruiter has paid off, and the 87 Catholic churches in the diocese are holding their own with adequate staffing. “We lose, on average, four or five priests who retire or die each year,” he says, looking at the attrition numbers. But enough new candidates are going through seminary to keep three priests at each parish.
It’s a far cry from the days when there seemed to be an endless supply of priests coming from Italy and Ireland. But while the Catholic church has been struggling across Europe, it’s growing stronger in places like the Philippines, Latin America and Vietnam—where D’Anjou now turns his attention. “Back in December, I made a trip to Thailand and the Philippines and met with four potential candidates. The two from Thailand were identified by a priest who works in our diocese,” says D’Anjou, who tries to follow up every lead.
A decade ago, Paul Mendoza was one of those leads. “The sisters were the ones who encouraged me to be an altar server,” he remembers. “Growing up in the Philippines and seeing how priests lived their lives, I asked myself, ‘Do I want to lead the life they’re leading now?’”
By age 12, he had made his decision to pursue the priesthood. “I’m the only boy in the family, but my dad says he doesn’t care that the family name ends with me. In the Philippines, it’s an honor to have a son for a priest.”
Seminarian Carl Arcosa agrees. “In the Philippines, to become a priest is a big deal. You’re the pride of the family. It’s just like you’re a professional.”
But while the church appreciates young people with conviction, the ideal candidate is actually much older. You can understand why, when you consider the education and living expenses are about $28,352 a year per man in the Oakland diocese. A candidate with some college under his belt could complete seminary in about four years. A younger candidate costs the church more to educate.
On the flip side, an older prospect has his drawbacks. “If they come in their 50s, we have to take into consideration all the years to prepare them and form them,” D’Anjou says. “It’s just prohibitive. We may get less than 10 years of service—retirement age is 70.”
In spite of the many obstacles, D’Anjou keeps the faith and taps into what he calls a powerful prayer network. “We have many people throughout the diocese who make regular daily prayer for vocations,” he says. “The more we pray, the more vocations we’ll have.”
A more “Earthly” approach is through priest-recruitment posters, not unlike those used by the military. While you won’t see them in coffee shops or other secular locations, they get good exposure in church lobbies and Catholic book stores. And they seem to be working. “We’re getting an increasing number of candidates who are born and raised in our diocese of Oakland,” he says, adding that the men who show interest are invited to an annual event that’s an orientation to the priesthood. Some realize soon afterward that the sacrifice is too great—especially in a country so focused on material goods. “It makes it more difficult, because of the luxuries we’ve been given,” D’Anjou admits.
But D’Anjou sees the priesthood as a way to escape that never-ending pursuit of material wealth. “We’re given more than enough to have a happy and healthy life without all these things,” he says quietly.
You’ve heard it before. Less is more.
It’s a philosophy that most folks don’t buy into. But for men like Mendoza, it’s one of the cornerstones of their faith. And much like the Marines, he’s ready for the challenge.
—By Ginny Prior