Posted June 16, 2004
International Priests Flooding Our U.S. Parishes
By Father Eugene Hemrick
The number of foreign priests serving U.S. parishes has risen enormously during the last decade. They come from Mexico, South and Central America, Europe, Africa and the Far East, and serve in our large cities, suburbs and rural areas.
The presence of these priests, however, is raising suspicions. Why are they really here? Is it to better their economic status? How well can they serve when their accents and lack of understanding our culture make it difficult to understand them? Is it right for the church in the United States to take priests from poorer nations?
America is a land of opportunity. It represents hope and dignity to generations of foreigners who came here. No doubt some priests come here from foreign countries seeking a better life. This may sound self-focused, but when we think about it, seeking dignity is normal. All of us work, study and sacrifice in order to raise our standard of life. Many of us enjoy a more dignified life than might otherwise have been the case because of grandparents who came to this nation seeking a better life.
But, it might be objected, why not stay in one’s own country and serve the poor there? The answer is that not everyone receives the special grace needed to work with their own poor. Staying home, as the Benedictine rule of stability encourages, is a special calling. Many people are roamers and prefer to strike out for new territories. And too, when we turn to the Bible, we realize that God’s chosen were forever on the move. Remember that Abraham didn’t stay in Mesopotamia; Moses didn’t stay in Egypt, nor did St. Paul remain at home.
Just as God has inspired Americans to leave home to serve in foreign countries, so God inspires those of other countries to serve here.
It is true that some priests from other nations are difficult to understand because of their accents and a lack of understanding our culture. On the other hand, there are numerous stories of the love people have for them because of their compassion. Compassion, kindness, service and a love for God are languages in themselves, superseding all languages and cultures.
One thing often forgotten when in comes to accents is that most Americans are monolingual. As a consequence, many of us don’t have a good ear for foreign language accents, whereas people who are bilingual or trilingual have much less difficulty understanding.
Often when we speak of “taking” priests from poorer countries, there is the implication of “stealing” them. But when we go beyond secular thinking and think in theological terms, we are reminded that the word “catholic” stands for universality. Although we have our own particular nationality, we all are all one. This aspect of the faith has been particularly emphasized by Pope John Paul II, who constantly reminds us of our global responsibility. Just as we send missionaries to other countries, so other countries send us missionaries. The church is missionary and global in nature and always has advocated the spirit of sharing.
We will see even more international priests in U.S. parishes in the future. If one of these parishes is yours, try looking around some Sunday and counting how many international doctors, businessmen and women, and laborers are in the pews. The intermingling of nationalities has always been the “American” way of life. It has also been the Catholic way of life. This is what has and will continue to enrich our way of life.