Deciding whether or not to become a priest begins with a calling. Of course, that’s just the first step.
Tucked among the dorms and apartments east of the main campus, adjacent to the athletic fields, partially obscured behind an automatic metal gate, sits a tranquil piece of property that’s owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego. This placid enclave near the lip of Tecolote Canyon houses resident and visiting priests, Bishop Emeritus Robert Brom, and a small group of religious young men who live in a sprawling ranch house built in the 1970s.
Officially known as the St. Francis de Sales Center for Priests and Priestly Formation, this unassuming house is the diocesan pre-theology seminary at USD. It’s where Catholic men like Felipe Toscano, 21, officially begin their path to priesthood through a program of discernment and formation. Beyond San Diego’s active Catholic community, many people don’t even know it exists.
“I felt God invited me to the priesthood. I had the option to say yes or no,” Toscano says. “Saying no was a lot easier for me. I had to give up a lot to do this. But in trusting the Lord, I was able to discover that if I follow this invitation, I might actually find the best version of myself.”
A typical teenage boy, Toscana was a soccer fanatic who joined his Chula Vista church choir because of a girl, and he fell in love with God instead. No one could have predicted he would have chosen this path, least of all his parents, who were blindsided when he told them.
“I come from a Mexican family and it’s not common to have a priest in the family,” he says. “I was 18 when I first told my parents
I was thinking of doing this. Dad stopped talking to me for two weeks. Mom was devastated.”
Ruben Zamudio, 23, was all set to become a border patrol agent when God called him unexpectedly. His answer drew
a similarly negative reaction from his father. “He asked me, ‘What are you doing? Priests are alone when they’re old.’ That’s pretty typical of Latino families. When you make a decision like that, it’s pretty drastic.”
The picture is very different from the way it looked more than 50 years ago, when the seminary first opened.
“The buildings were still under construction when we went there in 1958,” recalls
Msgr. Lawrence Purcell, who graduated in 1962 with a degree in philosophy and went on to study theology in Rome.
During his time there, he and his fellow seminarians occupied the entire building that is now known as Maher Hall, right in the heart of campus. There were about 50 men in all, one-half of whom would go on to ultimately be ordained as priests. “They opened the doors to many, and it was the training and the discipline of the seminary that sifted out people to find those with true vocations,” Msgr. Purcell says. “We were just kids, and to the degree that we ever grew up, we grew up together.”
Today, the candidates are generally older and more mature when they enter the program. Their numbers are much smaller, but their conviction and previous life experience result in a higher rate of ordination, according to Rev. Matt Spahr ‘83, who’s been the center’s director since 2003 and is also the pastor of The Immaculata Church. But while the mission hasn’t changed,
the program has had to.
“Most of the men we’re getting have college degrees and many have worked. They’ve been in relationships; they’ve had a career path. So they’re much more grounded in what they want to do.”
Among the five who currently live at St. Francis Center, only one already has a university degree. The other four — who range in age from 21 to 25 — are working toward their degrees either at USD or Mesa College. After graduating, they hope to continue on to pursue graduate work in theology at seminaries either in Rome, Camarillo (north of Los Angeles), or near Portland, Ore.
As part of a deal with the diocese and the university, students in the program get one-half off their tuition. Their room and board is paid through a loan from the diocese. In addition to full course loads, each has duties in the house and at The Immaculata. And Toscano — a junior at USD — is a starter on the university’s soccer team.
“It’s very difficult to manage all three things,” he says. “I have five classes, I have my duties at the seminary, and I teach at The Immaculata parish. And I have about 20 hours a week of soccer practice and travel. ” But what sounds like a crushing schedule for any other student seems to energize him.
“It’s definitely unique for a lot of guys on the team to learn that next to them on the field is a guy who’s studying to become a priest,” he says. “But there have been many opportunities for me to evangelize or practice ministry on the soccer team in ways that I wouldn’t do in the church.”
In fact, the opportunity to mix freely with the general student population in classes, during meals, in clubs or in sports, is what many consider a real highlight of the program — beneficial to both the seminarians and the university.
“There’s something about being at a university and living on a university campus,” says Father Matt. “They’re interacting with men and women, people their own age. When people find out they are seminarians, they have to explain why they’re doing it.”
It’s a tradition with a long and successful history. In the 1980s, when Father Matt was a student, there were about 30 seminarians that were well known around campus, even fielding their own intramural teams. And in the late 1960s, when the seminarians still lived next door to The Immaculata, Michael Eyer ‘71 was captain of the university’s football team and a fraternity member. His teammates used to call him “The Chaplain.”
“People would look at us a little differently, I think,” he remembers. “We had a spirituality about us.”
Although Eyer chose not to continue on to the priesthood, he did maintain very close ties with his classmates. Among them was Msgr. Daniel Dillabough ‘70, USD’s vice president of Mission and Ministry, who says intermingling was and continues to be a key part of the discernment process.
“I think there was a very human interaction involved in the life of the university as a seminarian, even though we did have some of our separate requirements. This wasn’t some mysterious place where everybody was so holy that they didn’t relate to people.”
These days, with only a handful of men living at St. Francis Center, the seminarians definitely have less of a presence around campus. While they can and sometimes do eat meals with other students, they often cook together at the house, where they share a kitchen, a rec room, a flat-screen TV, and an easy camaraderie. The men pray together morning and evening, and eat a more formal dinner together every Tuesday night. Here they look like typical university students — clad casually in jeans and sneakers — sitting around a long table with their program leaders and advisors, sharing food and jokes.
Tuesday dinners usually get more serious after dessert, when the men take part in a program dealing with priestly formation. On one such night, Sister Aurora Lopez-Ornelas, the diocese’s director of vocations, gave a talk and PowerPoint presentation about living a consecrated life. Among the questions she asked the young men to consider: “Are you willing to surrender yourself in total obedience? What does your devotion to Christ cost you?” They listened intently and thoughtfully, sharing observations and ideas.
Toscano suggested that obedience exists in every relationship. Husbands and wives obey each other. Parents obey their children, and vice-versa. Obeying God, he argued, may sound impossible, but seen through that prism, it really isn’t.
Sitting in their living room later that evening, the men chatted about their choices. “I’m a bit nervous,” said Josue Jimenez, 24, who holds a degree in health and human services from Franciscan University in Ohio. He hopes to move on to major seminary — an additional four years of theological studies — next year.
“I thought I had my life planned out. Then God started molding me, inviting me to follow Him. It’s kind of like a marriage. I’m following and I don’t know where it’s going to lead in the end, but I’m trusting.”
“I discerned on my own for two years, but there’s only so much you can do by yourself,” added Matthew Tobin, 21.
“Coming here, everything is conducive to your discernment. I love the program. It’s honestly been one of the best experiences of my life.”
With numbers dwindling, the challenge facing the diocese — and the entire Church for that matter — is how to disseminate that message, and recruit more men into the program and the priesthood. San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy has made that a top priority; Father Matt says the matter is urgent. “To be sustainable, we need to be ordaining more priests.”
None of the five currently living at St. Francis can be certain they will continue to ordination. After watching them closely, their advisors will decide whether they should move on to the next, postgraduate step. On the flip side, any one of them might decide that the priesthood isn’t a good fit after all.
Toscano says either way, his time at the center will have been worthwhile. “The beauty of this whole experience is that I’m getting to learn more about who I am and who I will become.” And even his parents are coming around.
“What my mom came to realize is that, although I am her child, before I am hers I am God’s,” he says. “There are moments when my mom is very happy for me, and my dad as well. Especially now that I’m on the soccer team.” — Karen Gross