| MEXICO CITY
MEXICO CITY Believers this holiday season are filling church pews across Mexico, but a shortage of priests in one of the world's most Roman Catholic nations threatens to leave many of the faithful without pastors.
In a country where more than 85 percent of the population is Catholic, one priest is expected to serve some 7,000 followers.
By comparison, the United States, where only 22 percent of the population belongs to the Church, has one priest per 1,500 Catholics.
"This is a real crisis of vocation," said Elio Masferrer, a religion expert at Mexico's National School of Anthropology and History.
Some blame the rise of a secular Mexico, where young men have improving job opportunities and increasingly reject celibacy.
"These days there are a lot of distractions and temptations, like drugs," said Guadalupe Conde, an 84-year-old priest at the Spanish colonial San Francisco Church in the center of Mexico City. "Young people aren't thinking about faith."
An average of 240 priests entered service in Mexico each year between 2000 and 2005, down from around 280 annually in the previous decade, even as the population grew.
"There are some dioceses where only one new priest is ordained each year," said Jose de Jesus Aguilar, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico City.
How to deal with the shortage of priests and the closing of parishes in many parts of the world has vexed the Vatican for decades.
It has consistently reaffirmed that only ordained male priests can say Mass and has rejected calls to extend the priesthood to married men or women in order to solve the crisis.
To compensate for the lack of new blood, older priests are putting off retirement. In Mexico's capital, the average age of priests is now 66, and at one downtown church, a 93-year-old cleric celebrates Mass in the morning and hears confession in the afternoon.
"Old priests have to work until they keel over," Aguilar said.
As the number of priests dwindles, the Church faces growing competition from evangelical churches that have sprung up in rural parts of Mexico and Central America. They usually have one minister or pastor attending just several hundred followers.
"The evangelical churches have a charismatic 'feel good' message that reaches young people," said Rafael Ramirez, a young Catholic priest who came to Mexico for a year from a parish in Houston, Texas.
But faith remains strong for many people in the world's second-biggest Catholic country after Brazil.
Several million people are believed to have visited the capital's Virgin of Guadalupe basilica this month on an annual pilgrimage.
(Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Xavier Briand)