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Posted February 24, 2006

Recent Background History on International Priests Coming to the United States

Taken from the study: International Priests in American [Already cited on our website]

The 1990 Guidelines of the American Bishops

By the middle 1990s enough difficulties had arisen over international priests that the Bishops’ Committee on Migration began an investigation and wrote a book of recommendations entitled Guidelines for Receiving Pastoral Ministers in the United States, published in 1999. The staff person in charge of producing the book was Aniedi Okure, O.P., a co-author of the present book. The forty-six page report discussed the most vexing problems and how they could be alleviated. It begins by reciting the “difficulties” in the process of bringing in priests at the time – selection of candidates, processing immigration papers, determining the terms of service, providing orientation, finding suitable jobs and housing, making educational arrangements, and so on. It makes three overall recommendations: 1. The international priest needs an orientation to America before leaving home; 2. He needs at least two to three months to adjust to American society and culture before beginning his ministry here; and 3. He needs to get a letter of agreement or contract with the receiving bishop,, specifying his position, salary, and benefits.

Regarding the process of recruiting, the report recommends that the American bishop make a written request to the diocesan bishop or major superior in the foreign country. Then the bishop or superior must nominate a specific priest and must vouch for his health, ability, experience, and character. The American bishop must state clearly that the priest will not be dependent on supplemental employment or solicitation of funds for his support during his stay in the United States, and he should state his diocese’s policy regarding fundraising by individual priests. The receiving bishop and the priest should come to an understanding that the latter has come to serve the whole church and will not be relegated to serving only those who speak his native language.

Taking these measures would reduce the number of “freelance” priests who find their own way to the United States and then hunt around for a bishop who will take them, and it would reduce misunderstandings about finances and assignments.

The report recommends good orientation programs for the priests. Orientation lasting several days should take place in the country of origin and be devoted to providing information about American society. After the priest arrives in the United States, he should be given two to three months for initial adjustment, during which time the diocese should help him develop a personal support network of both native and foreign-born clergy, and he should enroll in classes in spoken English. He should be assigned a mentor for a period of at least three years. Twelve to eighteen months after arrival, another training program should be offered, covering the history of the American church, ministry in a multicultural church, the role of lay ministers, and other topics.

Some recommendations about orientation programs were specific. Large dioceses should sponsor their own orientation programs, normally once a year. Small dioceses with very few international priests should join with other dioceses or sponsor a shorter program. The initial orientation program should contain at least sixteen hours of program time, possibly over tow to four days. It should cover practical topics, including bank accounts, driver’s licenses, immigration status, shopping, social security, telephone, social norms such as tipping and table manners, gender rules, American holidays, sports, life in a rectory or religious community, expectations of the laity in a parish, diocesan rules, and professional boundaries.

In the six years since the Guidelines came out, the rules have been followed by more and more dioceses, according to reports from everyone we talked to. Today every few foreign-born priests are coming to the United States without explicit permission from their sending bishops or superiors and the receiving bishops are usually written out. In addition, since September 11, 2001, American immigration rules have tightened, making it more difficult and cumbersome to bring in priests. The process of bringing in international priests became much more regulated in the last four years. The development of orientation programs, however, is a task largely unfinished.

Vatican Instructions Regarding International Priests

The Vatican has recently issued several instructions regarding international priests. In 1980 Pope John Paul II issued “Norms for the Distribution of Priests,” which asks that affluent nations share their priests with poorer nations and with mission territories.

In a 1990 encyclical entitled Redemptoris Missio, Pope John Paul II reiterated the need for more priests to serve in mission areas. Specifically, he encouraged bishops to offer some of their priests for temporary service in Africa.

In 2001 the Vatican Congregation for Evangelization of Peoples issued norms governing diocesan priests serving abroad. These norms were written to counter a growing trend of priests moving from developing nations to Europe or North America for further studies or for special ministerial service, then to remain there and never go home. The reasons why priests from developing nations wanted to go abroad were well known and clearly stated in the document. Priests are motivated, in part, to move to wealthy nations for the economic opportunities there. The result is that too many priests move to Europe or North America to study, then make themselves available to the local bishops an soon overextend their stay, hoping to remain permanently. A certain number of them defy the commands of their home bishop to return to their native country. The sending bishops, due to the long distances and poor communications, in effect lose control of those priests.

The 2001 norms state that from now on, bishops in mission countries should choose the priests they will send abroad to pursue further studies. The bishops should designate the field of study for the priest, the faculty in which he will study, and the date of his definite return. A written agreement must be made between the bishop and the overseas institution in which the priest is to study, including clarification of his financial support. The receiving bishop is obligated to provide spiritual assistance to the priest, including help in incorporating him into the life of the presbyterate. These Vatican norms of 2001 were an attempt to counteract irregular and under-the-radar movements of priests from nation to nation.