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Posted April 8, 2005

Research Regarding
International Priests and Seminarians

By Dr. Dean Hoge and Fr. Aniedi Okure, O.P.
Life Cycle Institute at The Catholic University of America
In conjunction with the National Federation of Priests Councils and
the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops

1. Numbers of International Students in Theology

At present about 16 or 17 percent of all priests in the United States were born overseas (including Puerto Rico).

Of them, 87% are diocesan and 13% are religious

CARA found that 22% of students in theology are foreign-born. The students come from many nations, mostly Mexico and Poland, followed by Colombia.

Surveys of ordinands in recent years found that many were born outside of the U.S. In 2002, it was 32%. In 2003, it was 28%. And in 2004, it was 31%. The vast majority were diocesan, not religious — 89%. They come from many nations, but the most frequent in recent years were from Vietnam and Mexico. From these numbers we conclude that about 30% of the recent ordinands have been foreign-born, that is, about 140 to 150 each year.

The international priests are not located randomly around the U.S. On the contrary, they are found mainly in the Pacific coast area, Southwest, Florida, and the greater New York area.

In our survey of international priests, we asked them where they had completed their seminary training. Most went to seminary in other nations; only 19% of the diocesan priests and 23% of religious completed their seminary studies here. Most were ordained in other nations, not in the United States; only 20% of diocesan priests and 30% of religious were ordained in this country.

2. Reactions of Americans to International Priests

We gathered extensive viewpoints from American laity. On balance, Americans prefer local-born clergy over international clergy, but there were some exceptions. A minority of laity believe that the American Church should be internationalized and that all Catholics need to be reminded that the Church is universal. These persons welcome international priests because of their cultural and spiritual input. Yet, more generally, we must realize that international priests work in a less-than-receptive parish context.

We listened to complaints made against international priests. Four complaints are the most common, and we list them here in order of frequency. First is that many international priests are poor in English. This problem has two components — some priests never were very good in English, and other priests, though English-speaking in their homelands, have very strong accents. Americans commonly told us, when referring to the second type, that the priests are okay in one-on-one conversations, when they speak from the pulpit they can be difficult to understand.

A by-product of limited English is that some international priests feel inadequate and shy, especially around other priests. They prefer interacting with priests who speak their own language. This is beneficial in that their same-language friends provide good personal support in a strange land. Yet occasionally we heard complaints that international priests do not interact with American priests.

The second complaint can be described broadly as “cultural insensitivity.” It covers a range of specifics, but invariably one of them is relations with women. Problems with women are usually that these priests in their homelands are unaccustomed to strong, opinionated women working collaboratively with them, thus the priests feel resentful or threatened by women on the parish staff.

Other cultural differences which our interviewees described occur around personal relationships, etiquette, and congeniality in rectory life.

The third complaint is less common — that the international priests have a pre-Vatican II ecclesiology. This is understandable in that many come from homelands with a pre-Vatican church culture. The specific irritations in this regard are that some priests expect laity to be deferential and that some priests try to rule their parish like a personal kingdom.

The fourth complaint is infrequent, yet it is worth mentioning. It is that international priests engage unduly in raising money, either to send home to their families or for themselves. We found in our survey that 49% of diocesan priests send money back to their family or diocese, and 13% of religious priests do so. In a separate question we asked if, since coming to the U.S., they have raised money from parishioners to support their diocese, religious order, or mission project in their home country. Nineteen percent of diocesan priests and 11% of the religious priests said yes. Americans were ambivalent when speaking about the topic of fund-raising, since everyone knows that America is wealthy while Third World nations are poor, and everyone recognizes that international priests have loyalties at home. If priests send some of their paycheck money home, no one minds. But if they raise funds from parishioners, it causes tensions. It is an irritant in the dioceses, many of which have explicit rules against any fund-raising by priests unless approved by the pastor or chancery.

We list these complaints to covey their content, but we do not wish to imply that nobody complains about American-born priests. Laity and fellow priests do. Nobody should think that international priests are the sources of problems while locally-born priests are not. Two vicars for priests told us that the international priests brought in no more problems, on average, than American priests. Anyway, regardless of the quantity of the problems, we believe that whatever could be done to eliminate the irritants should be done.