The second in a two-part series.
From a secular perspective, it is surprising that there are any Catholic priests at all. The priesthood is only open to men. It demands a lifetime of chastity, obedience and poverty. Once he is ordained, a Peruvian priest earns around $350 a month and has no input in determining the parish where he will be placed.
The studies are demanding. At the San Abad Seminary in Cusco, a student’s day begins at 5:45 a.m and ends at 7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays are typically spent preaching in a nearby parish.
According to Father Ysaías Vargas, the priest responsible for the operations of the seminary throughout the last 10 years, an average of five students in a starting class of 30 completes the eight years of study required.
“It’s a strange phenomenon,” said David Choque Camala, a seminarian in his seventh year. “Many start and few finish. Just yesterday one of our friends dropped out.”
Priests leave the seminary for many reasons.
“There are young people who start out eager, but when they have to live the reality of the seminary, they lose energy. The first difficulty they encounter, they quit like that,” said Choque, snapping his fingers.
Some, like Choque’s friend, leave to study other professions.
“The world today is too easy,” he said. “You can study online. There are people who study two or three careers at a time.”
But there are some who wonder whether the stringent requirements of the priesthood, rather than the attractions of a changing world, are to blame for the shortage.
The organization Future Church advocates for changes to the priesthood that it argues are necessary in order to attract new clergy. For example, although celibacy has been the official policy of the Roman Catholic Church since the fourth century, such a change may be possible.
“Celibacy is not a dogma, the door is always open,” said Pope Francis in 2014. Priests in the Eastern Catholic tradition are permitted to marry.
But in an organization as traditional as the Roman Catholic Church, relaxing the standards for priesthood meets with criticism.
“No,” said Father Bautista of Urubamba, of these proposed changes. “I believe that for us the model will always be Jesus. Imagine Jesus nailed on the cross. He never would have made that sacrifice if he’d had a wife and children.”
To Father Ysaías of the Cusco seminary, making the road to the priesthood easier will not solve any problems.
“I’ve been working for many years in the formation of new priests,” he said.
“When you are lazy about the fundamentals, it gets worse. Many young people get disillusioned and leave. Youth want big challenges…when you give them big challenges, they respond”
David Choque agreed. “All healthy young people like risks, and becoming a priest is a big risk,” he said.
He also worries that loosening restrictions will invite the wrong kind of people into the priesthood.
“If we want serious students, we can’t make things easier.”
What about opening the priesthood to women?
The church has answered with a firm “no.” Canon Law 1024 affirms that only men can receive priestly ordination. In 1988 Pope John Paul II issued a letter which explained that women could not be ordained, because Jesus chose only men as his apostles.
In 2002, seven women boarded a boat in the Danube River to be ordained by Fr. Rómulo Antonio Braschi. The Vatican promptly excommunicated all of them, but that hasn’t stopped the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests.
Since 2002, they and a sister group have ordained 210 women throughout the Americas.
Olga Lucia Alvarez has become a spokesperson for the ordination of women in Colombia.
“It’s a need ever more felt, especially in spaces that are marginalized, abandoned and poor, where the clergy do not reach,” said Alvarez over email.
To the notion that Jesus chose only men, she responded, “Absurd! Jesus never ordained anyone, and the Bible shows that many women were with him in his ministry.”
While Catholicism remains by far the dominant religion in Latin America, there has been a steady exodus toward Protestant faiths. A 2014 Pew survey of 18 Latin American countries found a net loss of Catholics in every one. Protestants may be more committed to practicing their faith: as a group they are substantially more likely to fast during Lent, pray daily and attend services – which in turn are more likely to feature exorcisms, faith healing and tongues.
The Pew report also found opposition to the ordination of women and to allowing priests to marry in the poorest Latin American countries, and tepid support in places like Chile, Brazil and Uruguay.
Therein lies the paradox of the institution — believers are born into vastly different countries, and the change that appeals to one group may alienate another.
In the Catholic Church, changes will come slowly – if at all – as leaders balance the identity of a 2,000-year-old religion against the pressure of the changing world.
I asked Father Ysaías how the seminary has changed since he began as a student over 20 years ago.
“Change? I haven’t seen it change much.”