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Posted July 12, 2005

Arguments Against Bringing in International Priests


We heard four arguments for why Americans should stop bringing in international priests. First, there are too many problems with them – mainly in language and culture.  

Second, bringing priests to America is an irrational deployment of priestly resources in the world.  

Third, it postpones a much-needed restructuring of parish leadership.

  Fourth, it postpones lay efforts to recruit more vocations here.  

In this article, we will dwell a little on the first and second arguments.  

We need to clarify that American parishioners, on balance, prefer not to have foreign priests serve them in their parishes.  They prefer American priests over international priests, and the main reason is language and empathy. Not all Catholics feel this way. Some cosmopolitan laypersons felt conflicted and a bit embarrassed when they talked about this, saying that they wished American laity were more receptive to priests from all nations and cultures, but the reality is that most laity are not. Only in certain parishes would laypeople welcome an international priest as much as an American. In addition we found that Americans prefer having an international priest over having no priest at all in their parish.

  We turn to four arguments. The first, that foreign-born priests bring problems in the parish, is by far the most common.  It has five sub-categories which need to be explained separately: language, cultural misunderstandings, different ecclesiology, finances and fund-raising, and aversion to mixing with other priests.  

1. There are Too Many Problems with International Priests

  A. Language  

Language is the main problem. It came up in all our interviews.  It has two distinguishable aspects, that there are priests who never commanded enough English to communicate an that some priests speak English but with such a strong accent that nobody can understand them. A veteran female lay minister in the East:

  With most of the [International priests] I’ve dealt with, the biggest block, of course, is language. Parishioners are somewhat taken aback because they can’t understand them, particularly from the altar, even though they might be able to understand them one-on-one. It seems that when they get on the altar, it’s much more difficult, and that was the case in both parishes I served.  I’m not sure longevity helps that. One of the priests, who is still active in ministry, has been in the United States and teaching as well as preaching for over twenty-five years, and it’s still difficult to understand him from the altar. One-on-one is not a problem. I have recommended to priests themselves that they try to get some one-on-one help with English, so that their diction is clearer. I know that’s difficult. It’s never going to be perfect.

We asked a permanent deacon in the West if priests from any particular culture were especially hard to understand.

Well, I think Indian priests are difficult, and they’re the deepest!  They seem to have a rich sense of spirituality, but it really is difficult!  You have to listen hard. It’s just challenging.  Today, to articulate with people you really do need people with communications skills. And if we’re building fewer churches and have more people in larger churches, it really is paramount that people have those skills. But one-on-one, I think that they’re very good.  

If you bring in a foreign priest who cannot speak the language, then you’ve got a difficulty: you’ve got people who will not listen.  They will come to church and say, “Who’s preaching?” I mean, it’s pretty human. It’s bad enough with just an American priest who’s preaching, let alone throw in the culture into it and the language barrier.  The people pick and choose. It’s no sense in adding to the complexity with a language issue. So that’s a concern.

  A female Eucharistic minister in her sixties:  

. . . Our pastor, he’s very interesting. He did missionary work in Central America for a long time.  I’ve spoken with him about it.  I find this speaking difficult.  Even though he is from Ireland, when he reads a Gospel he goes so fast that half of the time I don’t know what he’s saying. It’s ridiculous, because he speaks perfect English. I’ve told him before, don’t go so fast, because you run your words together and it’s really difficult to understand!  

Interviewer: Do you find it off-putting when you can’t understand a homily?

  Eucharistic minister: Yes. I mean, I would like to see my 25-year-old son stay awake.  But his comment is, “I don’t understand a word he’s saying, so I just rest!”  And my husband, I noticed, will be dozing off and dozing off.  I’m poking him in the side and I’m going, “Wake up, don’t do that. You can’t do that!” But you have to be able to really understand the priest. And i wish I wasn’t that way, but that’s how I feel.  

A veteran priest in Chicago:

Some of the [International priests] are very quiet, because of the language.  When they can’t speak English they can be very withdrawn and cautious. Some seem scared, at least at first. If they can’t speak English, they feel closed in and afraid. This sets them back.  

B. Cultural Misunderstandings

the second and third most common problems have to do with cultural misunderstandings and ecclesiology, and the two are related.  In reporting here what we heard, we do not wish to leave the impression that all the American priests and laity were complaining.  On the contrary, we heard as many commendations on these topics as complaints.  The commendations were usually global [“He’s an inspiration”] while the complaints were more specific and diagnostic. Here examples. A veteran pastor in California:

In our diocese, we have a large number of foreign priests, maybe half. They would be both from Asia, mainly from Philippines, and Mexico, Central America, and South America. I would sya it’s been very problematic for our clergy.  Come of them don’t buy in to the church here.  This is especially true of the Koreans, who are here for only three years.  They come to serve the Koreans here. Most of them did not want to come to the Untied States, but the bishops sent them. Well, some like it here, but I have seen much more of the idea that “Hey, I am waiting to get out of here” than they want to stay for a much longer time.  Now, some have stayed, have learned English, and have done very well, but their numbers are small.

  Interviewer: Are the Koreans unique in this way?

Priest: Pretty much. The Vietnamese are all rooted here. The Filipinos usually come to stay.  

Interviewer: I have been told of their difficulties with women. What’s your experience on that?

Priest: Well, usually it’s a matter of accepting a woman, like a woman on the staff, as an equal. I think many of these men come from different countries with a sense of the priest as superior, and that causes a lot of tension.  

Interviewer: Is this a matter of priests versus laity, or men versus women?

Priest: It starts with priests versus laity. But also sometimes it’s the macho idea, of men kind of superior to the women, and the place of women is to be subservient.  Those issues are all out there, sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant.  

Interviewer: I am guessing that a woman staff member would be the most threatening

Priest: Right. She’s the lightning rod, because she’s there. Usually they have the same degrees the priest has, and they have the experience, sometimes more than the priest has. So, actually, if you were to weigh them on a scale in terms of who is the more effective minister, the women might be the more effective. So that also may be a source of tension.  

This priest talked about problems of communication.  

Misunderstandings are always there. I think any pastor would feel he did good work if the [international] priest came to him, he said “Hello,” had an initial conversation, talked about this and talked about that, he showed him his room and told him dinner was six o’clock. Bang. Now, the guy upstairs is probably thinking, “Gee, I hope he is going to come back and tell me about it and take my hand and help me.” I think there are other kinds of expectations for the people coming in.  They might be wanting to enter into a more one-on-one relationship, and so on. I think the priest would say, “I gave him a great welcome,” but the other priest would say, “Wait a minute.” Or the pastor is thinking, he is an adult man and he knows what to do, he has been a priest before, so he will figure it out. And the guy is in his room waiting for the pastor to tell him what to do. Those kind of things. People have to be told.  

We asked a director of an acculturation program for international priests about the biggest problems they have.

  I would say misuse of money and women, particularly for the Africans. Just because culturally they look at women very, very differently, and so we have to understand that. But they also have to understand that that is not acceptable in this culture.  

Interviewer: When people complain about international priests, what do they mostly say?

Director: It’s, we can’t understand them when they talk, and they don’t understand our culture, particularly when it comes to marriage.  Marriage preparation, I think, is very difficult.  Particularly for Indian priests, because some of them might still be coming from seeing arranged marriages, where you don’t do any living together or anything like that before marriage.  And that’s not always the case here. And some of our priests argue that we can’t use those priests for marriage preparation until they learn the reality here.  

Interviewer: I guess that some international priests would way, “Why should I try to adjust to American reality, when I don’t even like it and furthermore it doesn’t even conform to what the Catholic Church wants?”  

Director: Oh, I know.  I’ve heard that, yes. Or they say “I’ve come here to save the American Catholic Church, because it’s going down the drain!”

Interviewer: Is this a common thing, or just a few people?

Director: I know it comes very strongly from the Polish priests. And I’ve heard it from some of the Indian priests. And some of the African priests are shocked by what they see.  

Interviewer: What is the biggest shocker over here?

Director: Many of them would consider us to be kind of free in our sexual mores, like premarital sex and, of course, the whole pro-choice. Some of the find that very, very difficult.  

Another priest who works with an acculturation program  

There’s some resentment about sort of “Why is it that Father So-and So, who’s from Ireland, didn’t have to do this orientation workshop?” You know, most of the priests who get sent to this workshop – I think the color factor plays a role here.  They’re going to be Latin Americans, African, Filipinos. But if you’re someone from Ireland or England, they aren’t sent.  But they’re working in the same diocese. So there’s still that prejudice that favors the Northern European. It’s assumed they sort of “get it.”  

Another thing, man of them come from more traditional hierarchical cultures. So when a person of authority, like a bishop, comes, you’re always going to wait on them. And when they see a typical middle-class white community walk out of church and just say, “Hi, bishop, hi,” you know, they’re like, “What’s going on here?”  And so we explain that, well, in the U.S. culture, it’s more egalitarian. We don’t like titles, we don’t like hierarchies, and that’s part of the culture. We rebelled against those things. So they’ll go, “Oh, oh yeah! So that’s why the kids don’t stand up when I go into the parochial school classroom.  They just say, ‘Good morning, Father.’ And I thought they were just disrespectful.” Or, “I thought they were just secular and my priesthood doesn’t mean anything to them.” So they become more compassionate of their parishioners, of their pastors, and the bishop.