GARDENA — In a way, Jaime Garnica, Juan Gutierrez, Rick Lee (California State University, Dominguez Hills) and William King (El Camino College) are average college students: young men navigating a challenging crossroads in their lives, discovering their passions and studying in preparation for their coming days in “the real world.”

But what makes these men unique is that, whereas the vast majority of their classmates are pursuing majors such as business, history or science with the intention of someday securing a job in corporate America, these men are studying philosophy ... with the intention of someday becoming a priest.

Yes, at an age when their peers spend much of their time trying to figure out which party will have attractive girls and full kegs, Garnica, Gutierrez, Lee and King have chosen to skip all that in order to discern the strong calling from God that each has experienced. And while this commitment is respected by most of their classmates, it’s understood by few.

“As soon as the word ‘seminarian’ comes out of your mouth, people definitely treat you differently,” explains Lee. “Sometimes it’s a good thing; sometimes it’s not such a good thing.”

Indeed, a young seminarian faces several such challenges every day. Fortunately, these young men and 22 others like them don’t have to face these challenges alone thanks to another unique aspect of their college education: their residency at the Juan Diego House, a house of formation for college-aged seminarians aspiring to become priests in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

Founded in 2003, the Juan Diego House has been run for the past eight years by Father James Anguiano. In 2008, Father Anguiano’s inaugural year as director of activities, the house hosted eight seminarians.

This year, that number has blossomed to 26, and a program that was initially contained in one building has expanded to five housing units spread along the block of its Gardena neighborhood.

“It’s exciting and frightening at the same time,” says Father Anguiano of accommodating the recent spike in vocations. “I told Archbishop Gomez ‘We gotta slow down praying for vocations. I’m at capacity!’ [Laughs] But it’s a good problem to have. Having a local example of living, breathing vocations that are alive and active in our community is really exciting.”

Though training to become a priest certainly isn’t easy, having the opportunity to live with like-minded men who share their ambitions and can relate to the obstacles they face has been immensely helpful for these young seminarians.

“I feel so safe here, being around a bunch of guys who are going through the same issues and experiencing the same thoughts I have had,” says King.

Adds Garnica, “You’re here with guys who have been through the challenges that not everybody gets to go through. You’re quite literally going up against the world. No one thinks about or understands that like the guys who are here.”

That understanding serves as a fortifying source of comfort for these seminarians not only when they encounter opposition in the outside world, but also (and perhaps even more so) when they face their own internal struggles and doubts.

For example, while each felt a calling to the priesthood at a very young age (King recalls, at the age of 4 or 5, pretending to be a priest and “playing Mass” with his family and friends), each also admitted to resisting that calling initially.

“My original plan was to come and try this for a year so that I could have the perfect excuse of, ‘Well, I gave it a shot,’” recalls Gutierrez. “And in my first semester, I struggled to share myself with others. I’d think, ‘Why am I here? I don’t need these people.’ And I was in a lot of pain and wanted to leave until Father Jim asked me, ‘Is it perhaps that you are afraid to admit that you are happy here?’ And that’s when I came to realize that was it: I had a fear that this is what God was calling me to be.”

That calling is universally daunting for seminarians for several reasons, not the least of which being that it requires them to wrap their heads around the idea of sacrificing romantic love, marriage and having a family. And some ex-girlfriends who get left behind as a result are less understanding than others.

While Gutierrez recalls that his ex-girlfriend calmly admitted, “I can’t compete with God,” King’s ex-girlfriend had a much harder time accepting his decision.

“During my senior year of high school, I would say ‘God, let me be happy and see this relationship through,’” recalls King. “But around that time, I started reading this book, ‘Running Away From the Calling.’ And in every single point the book made, I saw myself. So I decided I needed to dive in headfirst, which was really difficult for her to understand.”

While most people can’t relate to a break-up conversation of that nature, just about everyone can relate to another very real struggle these young men face: personal crises of faith.

Garnica, for example, shared that his relationship with God took a major hit this past June when his grandfather passed away suddenly.

“I was angry,” admits Garnica. “That was probably the lowest point in my faith. It was like when you get in a terrible argument with your dad and slam the door on him, but you know he’s still there on the other side. You want to shut him out, but he’s there knocking.”

As a priest of 33 years who once faced such challenges himself, Father Anguiano encourages the seminarians at Juan Diego House not to shut out these very real struggles and moments of doubt, but rather to embrace them and share them with one another.

“I encourage the men to allow the true self to come forward,” explains Father Anguiano. “Not trying to be the person I’m not, but rather the person God has created me to be I think is very, very important. Realizing that these feelings that we have are real, and not to try and hide them or tuck them away, but to deal with them whether it’s in formation, spiritual direction, or whatever it may be.

“Learning to be honest about what you’re feeling. Because we need healthy priests. Priests who are going to be honest. Priests who are going to be men of integrity. And you have to be honest with yourself and with God so that you can be the person God has created you to be. Not someone else.”

The program at Juan Diego House is built upon four “pillars of formation”: spiritual, human, pastoral and academic. This program, which aims to assist each seminarian to “know himself better, have a deeper understanding of what it means to be a priest and be committed to serving God and neighbor,” includes activities such as daily Mass, eucharistic adoration, meeting regularly with an assigned spiritual advisor and two retreats per year.

According to each of the four seminarians, Father Anguiano’s leadership in guiding them through these pillars of formation has already had a profound impact on them.  

“He does a great job of throwing himself into the community,” says Lee of Father Anguiano. “And even when Father Jim isn’t in the room, he’s still affecting the room. We’re in a community, and we make an emphasis on including each other, supporting each other. And I think Father Jim is a big part of that. He’s here not only when he’s literally here, but also in the way we treat each other.”

And, as each seminarian will attest, the program is reaping tremendous benefits in the form of their ministry, both at school and in their home community.

“As a seminarian, you learn that you are a public figure, and your life has an impact,” explains Gutierrez.

“One of the greatest joys for me is when someone stops me after I give a presentation on catechism in class and says ‘I didn’t know that. I’m glad you shared that with me’ or ‘I had stopped going to Mass, but I think I’d like to start again.’ And when I see my friends back home [in Nebraska], they say ‘You act differently. You speak differently. What has happened to you in Los Angeles?’ And I answer them by quoting Father Jim: ‘The program works.’”

According to Father Anguiano, the impact that he and his direction of the program has had on these young men is far from being a one-way street.

“The thing that has surprised me is the rejuvenation of my own priesthood through these men,” says Father Anguiano. “Seeing how these men are so excited about priesthood. The energy that’s there. Their enthusiasm for priesthood. They rekindled that enthusiasm in myself. They’ve given to me through them being them.”