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Church turns to social media, performing arts to recruit new priests

Father Robert Victoria puts it simply: If both God and Hollywood call your name, it's fine to answer them both.

As the writer of the musical "Fides Ecclesiae" ("Faith of the Church"), debuting at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood for a one-night-only performance on Feb. 10, Victoria hopes that telling the stories of two young saints — one a nun, the other a priest — might invoke a holy calling for others.

“It doesn't mean that if you're a priest that you will limit yourself to preaching,” said Victoria, whose day job is pastor at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in El Segundo, Calif. “Your gifts are not wasted if you become a priest or a nun.”

The musical – which features a cast of L.A. area Catholic priests and Bishop Oscar Solis – is one of a handful of nuanced outreach initiatives for encouraging L.A. youth to consider the priesthood as the need for Catholic priests continues to grow. 

The play also stands as a reminder of the church's mission and calling during a time when the news is dominated by reports of alleged sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy, as well as the release of personnel files detailing the actions of member of the church hierarchy in dealing with such reports.

With regard to its outreach to attract new priests, the archdiocese is starting to see results: A record 24 seminary applications this year – the highest in 25 years– according to Father Stephen Davoren, the associate director of vocations for the L.A. Archdiocese.

Davoren is using the momentum to stir even more interest. A Facebook campaign and a series of short YouTube videos will air at the end of February, telling the stories of current seminarians, whose backgrounds range from lawyers to professional surfers.

"We want to show a different side of the priestly life where people will say, 'Hey, you guys have a cool life, if you will,’” said Davoren, who was a police officer with the LAPD for eight years before becoming a priest.

A tough sell

Like Victoria, Davoren hopes young people will see that answering God’s call doesn’t necessarily mean giving up their favorite hobbies. Still, it’s no secret that the priesthood requires sacrifices.

Especially in 2013, Davoren doesn’t deny that the priesthood can be "a tough sell" when speaking to high school students about celibacy and giving up the possibility of marriage and children.

Yet there has also been an increase in the number of young men straight out of high school who are interested in the priesthood. Father Jim Anguiano, director of Juan Diego House in Gardena, Calif. – a home for male college undergraduates who are contemplating the priesthood – says the house’s numbers have tripled over the past five years, from six men in 2008 to 18 this year.

In Anguiano’s experience, one reason for the increase is that the young men are being personally invited by ordained priests to learn more about the priesthood and are then attending one of the retreats that Juan Diego House hosts twice a year.

“That seems to be a big turning point for many of the men,” Anguiano said. “It gets rid of a lot of fear and gives them courage to take that next step.”

Even as the Catholic Church continues to deal with sex-abuse allegations, including the recent discovery that Cardinal Roger Mahony deliberately covered up sex abuse by priests, Davoren believes the news isn’t discouraging interest in the priesthood or sisterhood.

"There's still so much compassion and love that sisters and priests show every day in doing God's work. That's what I think is attracting these young men and women to answer the call despite the horrible evil,” Davoren said.

Taking time to hear God's call

Davoren also began “Nights of Discipleship” in January­ – an event hosted once a month in Manhattan Beach that allows single young men and women to gather and “take time away from a noisy culture, to hear God's call, to talk and pray,” he says.

When it comes to the church’s role in vocations, it’s “doing all it can,” in Anguiano’s view. The real success has to come from the laity­, he says, especially family or friends­ of young men and women who are considering the priesthood or sisterhood.

“There has to be a lot more from regular people to encourage vocations and not to be afraid to encourage young men,” Anguiano said. “I hate to put [the priesthood or sisterhood] in the same plane as a career, but when you have career days at schools, is it an option to include it?”

And above all else, says Victoria, there needs to be someone to inspire young adults even to consider the calling, just as he was inspired 21 years by his godfather. He says that if just one person is moved by the performance on Feb. 10, it will be a success.

“If young people can get the message, God will do the rest of the work,” he said. 

This story is one in an occasional series of reports by students taking part in a class of the USC Annenberg Knight Program on Media and Religion, headed by Diane Winston. Thanks to a grant from the Luce Foundation, Annenberg students have covered global religion, culture and politics for the past four years. This year's journalism class is headed to Ireland and Northern Ireland for 10 days in March and, in preparation, are covering Los Angeles' Catholic communities. The nine students are a mix of undergraduates, second year grad students and mid-career professionals.