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Posted July 3, 2005

International Priests: New Ministers in the Catholic Church in the United States

Dean R. Hoge and Aniedi Okure, O.P.

This is a partial report from the study. The study will be published in its entirety by the Liturgical Press in Collegeville, MN. The study is a co-venture between the National Federation of Priests Councils, The Life Cycle Institute and the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops.  

Conclusions and Recommendations

We began this study by asking broad questions about international priests serving in the United States. How are they faring? Do they have any complaints? Are they ministering effectively? Should the church in the United States continue to bring them in? We carried out surveys, focus groups, and interviews. The interviews with vicars for priests and with American priests staffing acculturation programs turned out to be the most instructive, and we have quoted from them time and again. All this research has led us to a few conclusions, and in addition we received recommendations which we think are worthy of consideration.  

We have seen that the church in the United States has a long history of bringing in international priests.  The flow of missionaries to the United States began in the late 1800s and grew until the 1950s and 1960s, when it abated.  Over the years this nation has brought in many more missionaries than it has sent out.  Catholics with a short memory often do not know this, and they assume that the United States, being such a wealthy nation with such a strong Catholic Church, has always sent missionaries abroad and should be doing so now.  They wonder why international priests are here.  These persons operate with a mythical, nota factual, past.

  The long history of bringing in priests has had mixed success.  From the start there were tensions over ecclesiological and cultural issues, since European priests in the nineteenth century preferred a more hierarchical church and saw little merit in separation of church and state. American bishops complained about the quality of priests sent over from Ireland and Poland. Laity sometimes complained about the Irish strictness.  Now, a century later, the same pattern of problems is here again, but this time with international priests from India, Tanzania, Mexico or Colombia whose culture is different from the background of most American laity. Again Americans complain about language problems and cultural misunderstandings. The situation is less unique than Americans suppose, and possibly the American laity have changed in self-understanding more than the international priests have changed.  

What has clearly changed is that the international priests today are more visible and more exotic.  They stand out.  Also what has changed is that the priests come from developing nations which are now experiencing rapid Catholic growth-nations poor economically but, from one perspective, rich spiritually. Americans today take pride in their national wealth and might, and as a result wonder, often subconsciously, if Africans or Asians really have anything worthwhile to say; it is a subtle egocentricity which irritates developing-world priests.  American Catholics need to learn about the Catholic past – what is continuing and what is new in the current influx of priests, lest their unformed views make matters worse for everyone.  

The overall topic of international priests boils down to two questions. Should Americans continue to bring in international priests?  And, if so, what should be done to serve them and the American laity best?  On the first question we heard fervid arguments pro and con, as we reported in Chapters 4 and 5. But be that as it may, we expect that Americans in the future will bring in more international priests, not fewer, because of pressures from the laity.  On the second question we heard persuasive recommendations for better screening and above all for better orientation programs for arriving priests. We agree.

  Recommendations, Long-Range and Short-Range

Let us first consider the long range.  The shortage of priests in the U.S. will never be solved by importing international priests, since the numbers coming in are too low, and the adjustment to the church in America is too difficult.  At present about 320 to 340 are coming in each year, 40 percent of whom were trained in American seminaries. The priest shortage in most of the world is more extreme than in the U.S., measured by the number of laity per priest in the other nations. One idea came up repeatedly, that we widen the eligibility for priestly ordination, possibly by making celibacy optional for diocesan priests, or that we broaden the functions of deacons. Optional celibacy for diocesan priests is favored by the majority of American laity and priests, as shown in recent surveys. Nevertheless, international Catholic leaders today are opposed to discussing it, so we need to label it as a long-range idea.  

Secondly, we saw that the international flow of priests matches the Brain Drain in other professions, and that the Brain Drain harms the poor nations by depriving them of the medical doctors, scientists, and institutional leaders that they need. We concluded that the international flow of priests also harms Catholicism in the poor nations, but less obviously so, in that the majority of priests coming to the United States eventually go home again, and over a third of the priests send money home to families, dioceses, or provinces.  Bishops and provincials in developing nations need dollars more urgently than they need seminarians.  The poor nations in general are unable to support all the priests their seminaries could produce.  This leads us to conclude that an international rule should be established in worldwide Catholicism, that the wealthy Catholic nations must provide funds to the poor nations to help them train and maintain ministerial leadership. Some of this is being done now, especially by the religious missionary orders, but much more needs to be done by both orders and dioceses.

  We consider other recommendations feasible in the immediate future, thus we call them “short-range recommendations.” The items we list below received so much support from all sides that we can almost speak of a consensus behind them.  

1. Follow the rules, as much as possible, in the American bishops’ book Guidelines for Receiving Pastoral Ministers in the United States, published in 1999. We heard it commended on all sides and believe that it should be followed.  

2. Begin orienting the priests in their home country before arriving on our shores.  Instruct them about the church in America and the diocese in which they will be working.  Give them realistic appraisals of the opportunities and also the problems they will face.  Returned missionary priests who served in America are usually available to do the training.  At the same time, assess the candidates’ English skills and postpone the coming of any men with weak English or extreme accents which Americans could not understand.  Possibly a standardized test of English would be useful.

  3. Prepare the receiving pastor and parish for the coming of the international priest. Publicize the incoming priest’s background, education, and talents, and meet with the laity to introduce him ahead of time. Consult with the pastor about common problems international priests face after they arrive. After the priest’s arrival, sponsor welcoming meetings or mixers with parishioners and staff.  

4. Expand and improve the orientation programs for incoming international priests. The program should be local or regional, and they should have a session soon after the man arrives, then one, two, or three sessions in the ensuing year. Participation in an orientation program should be mandatory.  

5. Assign a mentor or companion to each incoming international priest, to help him understand the dozens of practical and cultural problems he faces.  Announce the name of the mentor publicly.  

6. Consult with the international priests about their needs.  Bishops’ committees and diocesan committees should have ongoing liaison with them.  One priest recommended having a national forum for international priests to hear about their experiences and recommendations.  

We recognize that the American bishops today are faced with financial limitations.  Diocesan staffs are being cut in many parts of the nation today, and new initiatives may not be possible just now.  But the situation is urgent, and whatever can be done should be done, for the good of the international priests and also the American Church.  The future is open.