Blessing the altar

L.A. Archbishop Jose Gomez blesses the altar as new priests Fathers Juan Ochoa, left, Andrew Chung, Christopher Felix and John Palmer look on. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times / May 31, 2014)

The four men were dressed in white and cream-colored robes. They knelt on the stone floor, ending up face down in a supplicating sign of obedience and respect. In front of thousands of onlookers, they were about to become Catholic priests.

"Lord have mercy," the crowd chanted, slowly. "Christ have mercy.... Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us...."

It was a ritualized, peak moment during Saturday's ordination — an annual event held at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in which seminarians become full-fledged priests, prepared after years of study to serve parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

The event was sober but celebratory, with incense and hymns hanging in the air along with blessings, tears, laughter and a homily in which Archbishop Jose Gomez exhorted the new clerics to hew closely to the virtues of mercy and humility.

When the ceremony was over, the new clerics — three in their 20s and one in his 50s — gave their first public blessings. A crowd of about 3,500 watched the event, and many then lined up to receive the special prayers in a sunny cathedral courtyard.

"Honestly, it's still settling in, it's been such a long journey," said Christopher Felix, 27, taking a break from doling out short prayers. Felix grew up in tough, gang-riddled neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley.

During part of the ceremony, his parents rose from their seats and he embraced them, clutching them tightly, tears in his eyes as he recalled all that he'd been through growing up. His mother nearly died from serious health issues, one of his friends was shot and barely survived and Felix himself was tempted by the streets before turning his life around.

"Today was such a grace-filled moment," he said. "It's going to take some time to process. But now I am just ready to go to work."

Bald and round-faced, with a wide and engaging smile, Felix soon will be serving as a priest in San Gabriel. His classmates will be spread throughout the archdiocese, the nation's largest with nearly 5 million parishioners. Andrew Chung will help lead a congregation in Pico Rivera. Juan Ochoa has been assigned to a parish in Lynwood. John Palmer, a 54-year-old who was a patent attorney before becoming a priest, will head to Lomita.

Four new priests is significant for the local church — which invests heavily in seminary educations that typically last five to seven years — but archdiocese officials are looking for more.

Even as the number of parishioners climbs, the Roman Catholic church has long struggled with a shortage of priests in the U.S., a falloff that hasn't been helped by sex abuse scandals that have rocked the church in recent years. (Cardinal Roger Mahony, whom some blame for failing to aggressively root out abuse during his tenure as L.A.'s archbishop, was on hand at Saturday's ceremony.) There are currently about 40,000 priests nationwide, according to statistics from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. In 1965, there were about 60,000.

The shortage isn't felt as acutely in Los Angeles, said Father Sam Ward, the diocese's associate director of vocations, partly because the region attracts clerics from outside areas. Still, the diocese is pushing to boost the number ordained locally each year.

Heartened by the number of men who've recently entered the diocese's St. John's Seminary — enrollment hit 92 in the fall of 2013, up from 71 in 2008, an uptick ascribed in part to the popularity of Pope Francis — officials say they expect to soon be ordaining groups of 10 to 12 priests, and possibly more, each year.

"The trend is improving, but we always need more," Ward said. "We need them. New priests give us new energy."

kurt.streeter@latimes.com