EL PASO, Texas - The Catholic Diocese of El Paso is facing a shortage of priests and often has to look to other countries for its clerics.
The shortage is one reason the Bishop of the El Paso Catholic Diocese recently formed a Diocesan Pastoral Council.
"That's a group made up of laity, religious women, clergy, whose primary task would be to do what we call business strategic planning and church pastoral planning for the future of the diocese," Bishop Mark Seitz told ABC-7.
The future could include men like Aldo Camacho, studying to become a priest for the El Paso Diocese. "I'm completely sure about this ... you can say I was happy in my normal life because I had a good job, I had good relationships, so everything was good," Camacho said. "But I was feeling this kind of empty. Like I wasn't completely happy like I am now in the seminary."
The process to become a priest can take up to nine years. Camacho, from Chihuahua, Mexico, could have entered the seminary in his home country, but opted for El Paso.
PHOTO: ALDO CAMACHO
"My friend invited me and I came here to meet the Diocese and I loved this diocese and I want to help here," Camacho said. "In Mexico, the necessity for the priest is not as much and I have a friend here and he told me how the USA has a lot of necessity. They have a lack of priests. So, they need, for example in El Paso, bilingual priests because the community is very big."
When Bishop Seitz was appointed to over the Diocese in El Paso three years ago, eleven men were studying for the priesthood. That number has grown to 23.
Bishop Seitz says in an ideal world each community would "grow their own priests" but currently 13 of the 23 seminarians are from foreign countries.
"We have seminarians from places like Colombia, from Mexico certainly, from Chihuahua, in particular. We have one seminarian from Vietnam, a seminarian from the Philippines, we have a couple of seminarians from Haiti," Seitz said.
THE DEACON'S ROLE
That isn't the only way the Diocese is addressing the shortage in priests. The Diocese also wants to increase the number of deacons.
"We don't envision them primarily as people who would lead communities," Bishop Seitz said, "But there have been cases where there have been men who are very talented and bring some experience in administration and so on and they've really helped us bridge a period of time where we may not have had a priest available."
"They are all married and they are going along with their wives because the sacrament of marriage happened before so for that reason they have to be learning and growing spiritually, but their wives have to be with them otherwise we can create a split," said Deacon Jesus Cardenas, who runs the Diocese's Diaconate Program.
PHOTO: DEACON JESUS CARDENAS
Cardenas is one of 29 active deacons in the Diocese and he oversees 22 men studying to become deacons. "We are part of the liturgy, but the mission of the deacon goes beyond that. We have to be socially responsible. We are responsible for the preaching of the Gospel," Cardenas said. "So, we become catechists, preachers, visitors of the ill. We do a lot of things and our call is very, very special because we are servers."
There are some things Deacons cannot do. "We can not consecrate which is the most important part of the mass and we can not hear confessions which is great for us. That's too much pressure," Cardenas said with a smile.
To become a deacon you must be at least 35 years old and married at least 5 years. You must also obtain a master's degree in divinity or pastoral theology.
MASS ATTENDANCE COUNT AND POSSIBLE CHURCH CLOSURES
The Diocese conducted a mass attendance count in October after having gone eight years without one.
The results showed more than 77,000 people attended mass during the weekend of October 15th and 16th.
"We look at them and try to get an idea of what our numbers are like when we try to get a sense of the health of the parish," said Bishop Seitz, "Say for instance, they are having a hard time supporting themselves, well, is that because their numbers are declining or is there some other reason they are having difficulty?"
PHOTO: BISHOP MARK SEITZ
The survey revealed more than 40,386 parishioners attended mass in Spanish, 27,018 in English, and 9,692 attended bilingual masses or masses held in a different language.
ABC-7 asked Bishop Seitz if he foresaw a situation where a church would be closed. "It's very very painful to close churches. I think probably in most cases what we would do is look at different ways that different parishes could cooperate with each other and work as some kind of broader community. Perhaps under the service of one priest," said Bishop Seitz.
Having a priest serve more than one church is already a reality, with only 40 active diocesan priests serving 67 parishes in 10 counties.
"40 is not nearly enough to serve a community where the estimate is that we have something like 670,000 people who identify as Catholic," Bishop Seitz said, "We know, obviously, we are not getting all of them in the door on Sunday, but certainly the goal of the church is to make sure we are serving all of them the very best we can and really the entire community."