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Fr. Victor Tolentino 

(age 30)

My name is Victor Tolentino and I come from Ormoc City on the island of Leyte in the Philippines.  Both my parents and all five of my siblings still live there.  I was in ordained 1996 and I came to this country almost a year ago.  

What can I tell you about this year?  It has been challenging, often rewarding, but mostly it has been...long.

Truthfully, this has been the most difficult year since my first year out of seminary.  That was the hardest year of my life.  Everything changed overnight.  I went from a completely controlled environment to a chaotic and uncontrollable one. 

Everything about that year was difficult.  Everything I did was new.  No one was telling me what to do any more, but they seemed to hope I could read their minds and do what they wanted me to do anyway. 

Trying to get my life into some kind of balance was all new and it wasn't easy.  In the seminary there was time for prayer, spiritual direction, exercise, leisure time, and it was all orchestrated.  After I'd been ordained for about six months I realized that I was still waiting for someone to come and tell me to exercise, and I wasn't planning to do it before then.  I also realized I'd gained ten pounds.  So I joined a gym and started making myself go there at least a couple of times a week.  I learned to schedule other things, too.

One thing I have noticed, and something I have to remind myself constantly, is that prayer is the first thing to go when my schedule gets tight.  I think of it as being something optional, something I can do if I have time left over from everything else.  When I go too long like that, I do the spiritual version of gaining ten pounds.

There is absolutely no place in my day for prayer.  I've talked to friends about this and they have the same problem.  One guy said he prays when he's driving.  I hadn't thought of that.  I usually pray when I'm driving too, but it's along the lines of "Oh Lord, why is that idiot coming into my lane?" or "Oh Lord, please let that light stay green a little longer, I'm already late."

Driving is my number one pet peeve about L.A.   Every single person behind the wheel of a car is eating and drinking a latté and talking on their cell phones and the women are putting on make-up and the men are reading the paper or doing their taxes...driving is about the fifth thing that anybody is doing behind the wheel of a car.  We should all be praying when we're driving, because nobody is watching the road.

All my friends tell me that they pray on the run.  One guy said, "If I didn't have to take a shower every day, God would never hear from me."

I've had to learn to schedule prayer like it's a dentist appointment.  I write it in my calendar.  I write it in ink so I'll be reluctant to reschedule it.  It has really helped.  Aside from giving me time to pray, it also is a concrete reminder that it's a priority.  It's not something to let slide until it's convenient.

Like I said earlier, this has been a tough year.  My pastor is... well.  He's a good man, I just don't think we're a good mix.  He reminds me of something I heard Joseph Campbell tell Bill Moyers in one of those interviews.  Joseph Campbell was talking about computers and he said, "They are like the Old Testament God.  A lot of rules and no mercy."  That line reminds me of the guy I work for, if that tells you anything. 

We are vastly different from each other and we have clear and conflicting visions.  He's very much from the "old school."  I think of myself as pretty conservative, theologically. But I think it's possible to be conservative and still be flexible and open to the changes that are taking place.  I don't think there's a conflict.  He doesn't agree.

When I read about what's going on at other parishes, I'm envious.  I want to be a part of that wave of hope and rejuvenation.  But right now, all I can do is read about it or listen to other people's stories.  The pastoral letter -- it all sounds great, but that's science fiction compared to the reality of my life.  The lay people are as frustrated as I am.  We're all up against a brick wall.  And the brick wall is not planning on retiring any time soon.

I've always been good at obedience.  I pride myself on that.  But when the pastor is telling me one thing and the cardinal is telling me another, who am I supposed to obey?  I'm an extern, so after a point I'm afraid to push anything.  I could be sent home on his whim.  So I keep my mouth shut.  But that means that nothing in my life coincides with my ideals and goals.  And I find that to be very draining.

My parish has a large community of people from my country, which is why I was sent to it.  The pastor and the other associate pastor have no first-hand experience of my people -- our culture, our idiosyncrasies -- there are so many more barriers than just the language.  I am trying to be a mediator between my people and the other priests -- to help them understand each other.  It's not an easy job.

I can honestly say that I love my people, even though at times they drive me crazy.  Sometimes their customs, their popular religiosity, seems to eclipse our basic sacramental life.  It is such a challenge to respect and prize the genuine and real faith of these good people and, at the same time, to encourage them to fill out that faith, to deepen it and, at times, even to correct it.

There are days when I find it all just...overwhelming.  For one thing, the sheer quantity of the people.  They come like big, massive waves that crash on the shore.  They never stop coming.  There are so many needs -- to help them settle, to recreate some of the home they left, to nudge them into the new life of this country, to bridge the gap that grows rapidly between parents and children, to alert them to the dangers of this country: drugs, gangs, alcohol, and an entirely unsympathetic attitude toward foreigners who don't speak English and don't look American and don't have all their documents in order.

In the middle of all of this, I do my "priest" thing.  I celebrate sacraments -- baptisms and marriages by the dozen.  I talk with troubled people: men who've lost their jobs; women married to abusive, alcoholic husbands; kids being pressed into gangs.  I try to help our religious education efforts.  There is so little faith formation.  We are constantly going back to basics.  And with the teenagers, on top of all the other challenges, I'm up against a culture that keeps pulling them in the opposite direction -- even when it thinks its trying to help.  I mean, just when I'm making a dent in their understanding of things like original sin and atonement, the network runs a mini-series that tells them that surfer dude Jesus died for "the eternal kindness of humans."  

The teenagers love that.  They've been trying to explain to me that people are basically good and why should they pay for something that Adam and Eve did and and what's with this "confession" nonsense, anyway?  A lot of them leave, in search of a spirituality that doesn't require so much negativity -- or one that doesn't require anything.  How do I explain to a teenager that there's a freedom in admitting our dependence on a God of mercy, and that there's danger in ignoring our great capacity for sin?  Who wants to hear that at fifteen?  It hurts to watch them leave, especially when I feel I should have been able to prevent it. But I don't know how to prevent it.  Not without telling them a lie.

I think of the Gospel, when Jesus asks Peter, "Would you also leave me?"  As followers are turning their backs on him and walking away, Jesus doesn't yell, "Hey guys, come on back, I was just kidding."  He lets them go.  I'm sure it hurt him more than it hurts me.  But it's hard.  I can only pray that they'll find their way back.

When I step back and reflect on these four years of priesthood, these words come to me:  importance, disconnection, and spiritual life.  

I don't think that I'm a proud man.  I don't think that I'm indispensable.  So, understand me when I say what I'm going to say.  I feel very important.  I firmly believe that as a priest and as a man with my people I am very significant.  I wanted to be a priest to make a difference.  In the last four years, I can already see how that's been possible.  Maybe not in huge ways, but who's to say what's large and what's small?  Gestures that seemed like nothing to me, I've later learned made a huge difference in someone's spiritual journey. 

I would not want to do anything except what I'm doing.  There are times when I want a simpler job and a family at home waiting for me at the end of the day.  But, on the balance, this is where my heart is.  This is what I want.  This is what I give myself to.  This work has meaning and significance.  It is so important.  That's what keeps me going.

But there is also this feeling of disconnection.  As much as I feel connected to my people and my parish, I feel disconnected from the larger Church and, frankly, from the other priests in Los Angeles.  I don't lose sleep over this disconnection, but sometimes I feel it sharply.  I wanted to be a part of the larger world.  A bigger Church.  That's a large part of why I wanted to come to this country.  I wanted to be a part of the international Church, to feel like I belonged not just to my parish and to my own experience, but to the great body of people of faith.

Don't get me wrong.  Other priests are friendly, but just not connected to me.  Sometimes I think they see my people as beggars -- poor people who have come to get something from the Church and this country.  They never see them as people who have something to give. They don't seem to see them as an important part of the future of the Church in Los Angeles.  I pray that it will change, and not just out of necessity, but out of open-mindedness and a genuine understanding of who my people are, and what they have to offer.

Sometimes, I feel disconnected from a sense that the Church feels more like a business, with good organization and efficient delivery of services, but in a way that is cold and lacks a sense of family.  It feels more like a place you go to get things you need, not a movement of faith that you belong to and are willing to give your life for.

I pray that this, too, will change in time.  I have to believe that it will.

The third thing that comes to me is spiritual life.  What will I draw on?  More than ever I have come to realize that everything depends on faith and my trust in God, and I am going to need times and places to nurture and renew those things.  One retreat a year is not going to be enough.  I am going to be responsible for my own discipline and the upkeep of my own faith.

I've begun to suspect that the people I serve will be my teachers of prayer.  I watch them and, at times, join them in pleading to God with all their hearts. There is a simple and genuine way in which they approach God.  I want to approach God like they, with an innocence and with all of my heart.

I also see my people staying faithful day by day to their families and to God.  There are many things that could throw them off course -- new country, language problems, work issues -- but they stay faithful.  They do their work.  They care for their families.  They offer their prayers.  I want that kind of steadiness.

In the end, my people are full of trust.  They surrender their lives to God.  They know that, no matter what the circumstances of their lives, they live by God's providence.  They know in their hearts that in the end, God will draw them to Himself.  This is something they've learned through things like poverty, and the insecurity of leaving behind country and friends and homes. 

I wonder, sometimes, how the young people of this country will learn the same things.  They think they are deprived when they aren't given a car on their sixteenth birthday.  What will it take for them to learn that they are entirely dependent on God, and that materialism and pop culture are lousy and volatile sources of comfort?  I have learned from experience that God provides the lessons we need.  I fear that this generation has a sharp learning curve ahead.  And they are up against so much, bombarded by so much, it seems unfair.  They are victims of something far larger than themselves, and something they are way too young to understand. 

I'm very fond of the young people of my parish.  They're so full of life.  And I understand them, because I was one of them such a short while ago.  But I was also different from other young people when I was that age.  I have always been able to see the big picture.  I have always been able to tell what was important and what was shallow and fleeting.  It's a part of who I am, a part of my vocation.  But it leaves me with the same frustration I had when I tried to talk to teenagers as a teenager.  Why don't they see this?  Why won't they listen?

I talk to them even when I know they're not listening.  Maybe they will store my words away like a computer file, to be opened later when they have some desire to listen.  I pray with them and for them.  I don't know what else I can do. 

It may not sound like this as you listen to me, but I am very hopeful.  These are the things that are in front of me right now, the problems I have to try to solve on a daily basis.  But at times like this, when I have a chance to step back and take stock, I feel good about where the Church is headed, and good about the changes that are already taking place.  In a lot of ways, it's not going to be the Church that a lot of you grew up in and dedicated your lives to.  It's going to be very different in style and form, in ways that a lot of you never would have imagined.  I don't know if this is what God always intended, or if we are just a fallen race capable of destroying anything if left to our own devices and given enough time. 

But I know this:  throughout the history of mankind, God has done remarkable things with the mess we've made.  He turns our junk into new and wonderful ways to serve Him, over and over. I have already met parishioners who have realized, out of some new form of lay ministry, that they have a vocation.  Who knows how many new vocations will come from the experience of serving the people and realizing -- being able to feel -- the wonder of it.  Maybe that's how God has chosen to deal with the vocation crisis.  Maybe we'll be amazed.  Maybe fifteen years from now, we'll be sitting here wondering what to do about the priest surplus.  As Jesus said, "With God, all things are possible."

I also know this:  there wouldn't be a vocation crisis if people were leaving the Church in droves instead of flocking to it in record numbers.  We need to remember that.  It is good that we have more business than we can handle.   This is a problem of abundance, and we should be grateful for it.

It's something to think about while you're driving.

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