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A North American College in Mexico


According to the 1990 census, Hispanics in the United States number some 22 million people, which includes 4 million who are undocumented. About 70 percent of U.S. Hispanics embrace Catholicism, although 80 percent of those who do may not attend church regularly.

Since 1980, the number of Hispanics in the United States has grown five times faster than the rest of the population, making this nation the third-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. Families from Latin America tend to be deeply Catholic. The traditional religiosity penetrates every facet of life, from baptism at birth until the rites celebrated for the deceased.

The small Catholic Vietnamese community in the United States proportionally accounts for a much larger number of priests and seminarians than the Hispanic community. Both the Vietnamese and the Hispanic communities have deep Catholic roots, both are traditionally family oriented and both practice popular religiosity. Then, why do young immigrant men from Latin America not enter the seminaries of the United States in the same numbers?

Among U.S. Hispanics, vocations come mostly from those born outside the country. Yet the U.S. Catholic community does not do all it could to make these new vocations feel welcome.

Frequently, young men from Latin America who inquire about the priesthood while they are in the United States have deficiencies in their academic formation. Those who may be better educated and inquire by letter or e-mail are strongly challenged about their “real” intentions for coming to the United States.

At the National Association of Hispanic Priests, we have received a few e-mail inquires from young men in Colombia and Mexico who are interested in joining a diocese in the United States. But when the association forwarded these requests to vocation directors, they were usually dismissed. The ones that receive more attention are from seminarians about to be ordained (hence, with their studies virtually completed).

The major difficulty confronted in this country by potential candidates for the priesthood from Latin America is a lack of immigration documents. The highest academic level that an undocumented alien can hope to obtain is a high school diploma. Without proper documentation, they will not be able to enroll in a university.

Diocesan and religious vocation directors in general would probably accept only a candidate who is fluent in English, who has completed high school and who has legal immigration status in the United States. How many Latin American immigrant young men fulfill these requirements? Inquirers are often rejected for lacking one of the items mentioned.

If we want more Hispanic priests, one viable alternative is to support candidates from the beginning of their vocational journey. The benefits will far outweigh the expenses. The archdiocese of Mexico is offering one affordable alternative formation program to solve the difficulties that immigrant candidates confront in the United States.

Cardinal Norbert Rivera of Mexico City has established in his archdiocese The Hispanic Seminary of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The new seminary aims to promote priestly vocations among Hispanic communities in the United States and Canada in coordination with the respective U.S. dioceses from where the candidates are recruited and sent to study in Mexico.

This new house of formation is located in Tlalpan, Mexico, near a Pontifical University, other Catholic universities and the archdiocesan seminary. In this project, the recruitment of the candidates does not take place in Mexico but in the United States.

Jesuit Fr. Allan Figueroa Deck from Los Angeles recently said that the diocesan seminary of Tijuana, Mexico, (bordering San Diego) has already received seminarians from several dioceses in California for the purpose of forming them in a Spanish-speaking environment before they return to the United States.

On the other hand, there is a tremendous benefit in having seminarians study within their own diocese. Their local bishop can more easily monitor their formation and acculturate them into the local church. For this reason, a house of formation in Mexico should be only a preparatory stage for those not ready to start a formation program in the United States.

The U.S. bishops should consider opening a “North American College in Mexico,” with the bishops monitoring the staff and the formation programs. This formation house should be established in Mexico because almost 70 percent of all Hispanics in the United States are of Mexican descent.

The need for Hispanic priests in the United States could negatively affect vocations in Mexico, where there are even fewer priests than in the United States. There are many dioceses in the United States that welcome seminarians from Mexico at the theological level, thus decreasing the number of ordinations for the church in Mexico. Currently, it appears that U.S. dioceses that receive transfer seminarians from Mexico are not reimbursing the seminary of origin for their expenses, as is the practice when a seminarian transfers from one diocese to another within the United States.

There are advantages in having a formation program available for the U.S. church on Mexican soil. While in Mexico, the candidates can study English and philosophy. After they have learned English, advanced in their college studies and arranged their immigration status, they would be considered for enrollment in a formation program in the United States.

Other possibilities to foster vocations to the priesthood among Hispanics in the United States may include:

  • Better use of the Spanish-speaking media to promote vocations.
  • Information accessible to young men on how to go about pursuing the priesthood, information as basic as where to go and whom to talk with.
  • Creation of a national seminary in the United States for Mexican and other Latin American students similar to that at Orchid Lake, Mich., for Polish seminarians. (It could be located in San Antonio, which is a bi-cultural city with a bi-cultural/bi-lingual seminary.)
  • Vocation directors or their delegates should participate in career days and other vocational events at public high schools (most Hispanic children do not attend Catholic schools).
  • Make seminaries in the United States more culturally friendly to Hispanics.
  • Encourage parish priests to promote the priesthood among the children of Hispanic families.
  • Arrange some sort of safe structure to help young men become acquainted with their priests. (Because of the risk of lawsuits and strict diocesan policies, priests tend to spend less time in contact with young men.)

John Paul II, stated that “migrants should be met with a hospitable and welcoming attitude which can encourage them to become part of the church’s life, always with due regard for their freedom and their specific cultural identity” (Ecclesia in America). Following the teachings of the church, we need to continue to search for better ways to encourage vocations and serve the growing Hispanic community in the United States without diminishing the number of priests available to serve within Hispanic countries.

Fr. Miguel Angel Solorzano, 34, is a diocesan priest, born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and a graduate of St. Thomas University School of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston. He works as parochial vicar at St. Pius V Church in Pasadena, Texas. He is also the director of communications for the National Association of Hispanic Priests and a representative of the Southern region of the same association. (Internet: www.miguel.solorzano.com. E-mail: miguel@solorzano.com)

National Catholic Reporter, December 10, 1999