HOUSTON — There are 1,230 U.S. Catholics for each of the nation’s Catholic priests.
But in the Hispanic community, the ratio of Latino parishioners to Latino priests to rises to 9,925 to one, according to a report by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“There is a great need for more Hispanic priests,” said Candice Tyrrell, vice president of membership for the USA Council of Serra International. “We desperately need more priests, especially more Hispanic priests, to serve the growing Hispanic population.”
After receiving permission from Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Tyrrell began working with Father Miguel Solorzano, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Houston, and his parishioners to create the first Hispanic Serra Club within the archdiocese and in the United States.
“As the club becomes firmly established, it would be good to seek members from other predominantly Hispanic parishes within the archdiocese,” Cardinal DiNardo recommended.
Father Solorzano said the newly created chapter has met several times to organize its charter and elect officers.
Organizing in support of vocations
Serra USA was formed in Seattle in 1935 by lay Catholics to promote vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Named after the missionary St. Junípero Serra, it has grown into an international association of 1,100 clubs in 46 countries.
Members of the Houston club collaborate with the archdiocese’s Office of Vocations through prayer, vocational programs and annual membership dues. The group also provides monetary support for seminarians and for discernment retreats and summer camps that enable participants to learn about priesthood.
Father Solorzano recalled making a vocational retreat in Guadalajara, Mexico, as part of a “pre-seminary” experience following 11th grade.
“During the 12th grade, I attended a program called ‘seminarians with their families’ where we met once a week and had a weekend retreat once a month,” he said. At the end of that year, he entered the seminary, he said, adding it’s critical to offer support programs following vocational retreats.
Challenges for Hispanic discerners
Father Solorzano said those seeking vocations in the Hispanic commumity also must surmount academic and cultural roadblocks.
“One of the main challenges is the lack of academic training,” he told the Texas Catholic Herald. “Without a high school diploma and legal U.S. status, a young man cannot apply to enter the seminary.”
Yet, he said, spiritual groups involving the whole family that do draw young people.
One of those groups is the Neocatechumenal Way, implemented in small, parish-based communities of up to 50 people focusing on mission. In 2007 there were around 20,000 such communities throughout the world, with an estimated 1 million Catholic members.
“At St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Houston, most of the vocations to the priesthood have emerged from the Neocatechumenal Way,” Father Solorzano said. “Young people from this group feel the desire to live in a seminary that carries the same spirituality that they experienced in the parish.”
Seminarian Brandon Badillo, 21, said he and his family were among members of St. Charles Borromeo for many years and worshipped with the Neocatechumenal Way.
While he said the group was instrumental, Badillo had felt the “natural pull” to the priesthood since age 7. And coming from a big family — he’s the third of 13 — he said the call came from God in his heart.
Vocations journey starts in families
He attended Catholic schools and served as an altar server at Sunday Masses, at weddings and funerals. But he kept his prayer of becoming a priest mostly between himself and God until he attended the 2019 World Youth Day in Panama.
After Badillo shared his discernment with Father Solorzano, the priest hired him to work in the parish office, and help with livestreaming Masses and social media.
He credits the Serra Club with encouraging his studies and spiritual development, saying members of its prayer group sent him cards of support and that the club gave him financial help.
For much of this summer he has been working at St. Ignatius of Loyola Catholic Church in Spring, Texas, helping the priest there where needed.
In August, he will return for philosophy classes and other studies as a third-year student at St. Joseph Seminary College in Covington, Louisiana, before transferring to St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston for theology.
Given that journey to priesthood takes at least seven years of schooling, Badillo said he is praying to be ordained by 2029. But he noted such a journey starts with a faithful family raising their children in the church.
“We need more Hispanic priests with more and more Hispanics becoming a majority of Catholics in the U.S. All seminarians now need to learn Spanish, but that was my first language at home,” he said. “Our community says, ‘We need more priests, but don’t take my kids; I want grandchildren,'” he noted.
“Our priests and religious life are in need of our encouragement and love these days,” said St. Charles Borromeo parishioner Mayra Meza Suarez, the first president of the Hispanic Serra Club. “We are definitely going to learn along the way with our service. Indeed, we are making history as we embrace this amazing path for our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Zuñiga writes for the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.