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Posted April 8, 2005

Recommendations From Priest and Laity
on International Priests

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

We asked everyone for recommendations — in the survey, in the phone interviews, and in the focus groups. The responses came in two broad categories, which we will call “reforms” and “innovations.” In the “reform” category, numerous priests and lay leaders told us that the introduction of large numbers of international priests into America is symptomatic of deeper problems of ministry in the Church, and that the real problem is the priest shortage and the need to re-think ministry and parish leadership. In their view, we need a broader eligibility for ordination and ministry. People voiced this frequently, yet in guarded tones, and laypersons told us that they could not say this out loud in their dioceses. These persons were unenthusiastic about the prospect of bringing increased numbers of international priests into the country — except to serve non-English-speaking immigrant parishes — because it postponed the deeper reforms which, soon or later, will be needed. We consider this recommendation worthy, but it is long term due to its global Catholic implications beyond the U.S., hence it needs to be considered separately, different from other recommendations which might be possible now.

What “innovations” did our interviewees propose? The most common and most persuasive was that orientation and inculturation programs need to be expanded. Recall that virtually all international priests who have experienced such programs praised them. Of the need for improved programs there is no doubt in anyone’s mind. The only questions are a. how and when to have the programs, and b. what should be included, and c. why aren’t we doing more now?

We asked about the best kind of program. Our interviewees agreed that when international priests first come, they need an orientation program to teach them about American culture, the American church, and the local scene. If there is any weakness in the priest’s spoken English, he should begin English instruction immediately. The program should be three months or longer, but realistically it will have to be shorter to save costs and to enable the bishop to put the priest to work quickly. In addition, there should be an ongoing program involving gatherings periodically for at least a year. On-the-job training over a year or more is better than classroom-style learning at the beginning, since priests at work in parishes encounter problems which need answers, whereas students sitting in seminary courses may not see the relevance of what they’re studying.

These programs should be as local as possible. Large dioceses with enough incoming international priests each year should run their own programs. Smaller dioceses will need to send their international priests to regional programs.

International priests need mentors or persons to accompany them for at least a year. The mentor must be assigned by the bishop, and he must pay special attention to the priest’s needs during the first few months. He must help the new priest with getting a driver’s licence, opening a bank account, getting a social security card, and so on. One vicar argued that international seminarians and priests should be brought here in groups, not as individuals, to combat loneliness.

What should be included in the orientation programs? Most important of all, spoken English. Every international priest must be tested and, in most cases, given training. Accent reduction is needed by the majority, and it needs to be done individually with a personal coach over a period of months. In addition the orientation must include an introduction to American government, church governance, laws, specifics of American culture such as holidays and sports, personal relationships and etiquette, even basic hygiene. Whatever troubles or baffles the priest needs to be discussed and explored.

If orientation programs are so valuable, why aren’t they in place now. We asked this again and again. It seems that some American bishops don’t see the importance of good orientation programs. The bishops don’t appreciate the agonizing tensions experienced by immigrants — priests or anybody else. They need priests and want the international priests to begin ministry immediately, and they don’t want to spend money on orientation. Pastors often fail to see the value of orientation programs and are unwilling to arrange time for their international vicars to attend. Thus some parochial vicars are unable to leave their parishes for ten days or two weeks so they can participate. Older international priests are known to resist accent reduction programs, coming back with something like “I have been a priest for — years, and my English is better that what passes for English around here.” Why can’t Americans appreciate “real English”?

We conclude from all this that church leaders at all levels should push harder for good orientation programs. Dioceses and religious orders need to make orientation a requirement, not an option. American bishops should develop a standard test of spoken English with acceptable accent. Seminarians should offer English coaching and hold students to acceptable levels. The should work harder to accompany international students in their studies and in their field work.