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Posted February 21, 2008

Experts on International Priests, Deacons, Lay and Hispanic Ministry

by Father John Kemper, S.S.

Given at the Meeting for Bishops of Mission Dioceses at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL

Also see: International Priests in American History

International Priests: New Ministers in the Catholic Church in the United States Authors: Dean R. Hoge and Aniedi Okure, O.P.

Found on our website under this title.

I think one of the things we need to address is the fact that we have gone or we are moving from being a sending church to being a receiving church. I think that strikes of the heart and the psyche of most of our presbyterates. It makes us uncomfortable. You know, I see some of you squirming around already Currently there are over 8,000 international priests in the United States. I know that term tends to be rather fluid because some of the Irish think, even though they were born across the pond, they're not international, but they are. If you can do the math in your head, that automatically translates to about 16-18% of our clergy in the United States on a national average. When you look at places like Los Angeles, New York, Newark, Miami and here in Chicago, the number or percentage of international priests well exceeds 25%. If you look at the study done by Msgr. Ed Burns in the USCCB Office of Vocation and Priestly Life, of the ordination class of 2005, you will notice that the international students, seminarians, were 27%; up 3% from the previous year. So the ordination class across our United States in the year was 27%. So I think this is here, it's a phenomenon that not only affects your diocese, but across the board. One of the great resources that has come out recently, and I know you all received this in the mail, "International Priests in America", it is a study done by Dean Hoge and Dominican Father Neddy, with the funding and cooperation of the National Federation of Priest Councils. That's a great resource, I believe, for all of us who are grappling with this question of international priests in the United States.

A few months ago, someone gave me a book entitled "The Lost Art of Walking on Water". There is a quote from it that I'd like to share with you. "The pastoral care of souls is not simply a task we do, (speaking to priests now), not merely functional, but rather it demands that we enter into a personal relationship with those entrusted to our care. I'd like to use that as our jumping off point.

In listening to your concerns and your success stories this morning, I think, like the poem of Robert Frost, our path goes in two different directions. The first direction is what I'm calling short-term solution or short-term residency. That can be when an international priest comes to your diocese or to your region and he's going to be there for two to four years, he's there because he's doing a course of studies at the local university and plans to return home. He's there because his family is there and he's meeting a family need for someone. What does that person need to be a pastor, to be in charge of pastoral care of people on a short-term basis? Certainly I think language skills was something that all of you raised in your table conversations as I listened. For many international priests, they come with the knowledge of English, but it's not U.S. English. So there needs to be what's professionally called accent reduction, or U.S. pronunciation. There needs to be openness for an acculturation process on his part, and a functional knowledge of the host culture. If you reverse the scenario, it's like anyone of us or any student that you may send off to Rome or to Belgium to study. They are going to be in a foreign country and they are going to be living there for four or five years and they need to know how to function in that culture, both language-wise, and well as the cultural norms, but they are not going to make their life there. That's the one path.

The second path is a little bit more complicated. It's what I call long-term. There is no date of returning to his own native country, and he may even be seeking incardination into your diocese. And I think this long term presents functional challenges for priests coming to the United States. He needs to commit to work on language studies. Fluency in the language, and particularly accent reduction, is a long and arduous process. It doesn't happen overnight. Those of you who are fluent in other languages know that if you don't keep it up, you lose it. The same is true with gaining a proficiency in English. He needs to be willing to immerse himself into the culture of his host diocese. He needs to be willing to enter into this give and take of culture, so as to be what I call a hybrid. And a hybrid, he will know longer be of his birth culture and he will never be fully of his host culture. He will be a hybrid, something in between, and that's what he will become if he chooses to stay and invest himself in priestly ministry and life in the United States. He needs to be willing to expand his vision of priestly life and ministry beyond his home culture. All too often, the questions about collaboration with parish councils, with finance councils, with women, with deacons, always come up when I deal with international priests because these are aspects of their priestly life and ministry they never had in their home culture. I think also we need to be honest and say that the acculturation process is not a quick fix. It's not something you do on a weekend workshop. It doesn't work that way. But it also must be intentional; intentional on the part of the diocese, as well as intentional on the part of the individual. And that intentionality requires work. An international priest needs to be assigned a mentor that he meets with at least on a weekly basis throughout the course of his first year in ministry. This mentor needs to sign on as well. So please, Bishops, don't force the guys hand. If you ask him once and he says no, and you ask him twice and he says no, to become a mentor, and then you call the third time and you say "now look, I really don't have anybody else, could you do this for me?" A reluctant mentor doesn't do well. So, please be mindful of who you ask.

I have four observations to conclude with.

1. Recruiting seminarians is better than recruiting priests. It will cost you more, but the acculturation process happens simultaneously with the formation process, and so does the language skills. The downside is, the seminarian will need to re-discern his vocational call in the new cultural context of the United States. You may be investing money and energy and time into a seminarian, who in the new cultural context of the United States, decides he doesn't want to be a priest here.

2. If you are recruiting international priests, make sure you do your homework and more. Check references, as one of the tables said. You know, bishop to bishop on a telephone, or face to face, is a wonderful way of getting references. Several years ago I was fortunate to spend six weeks in the Philippines, and I made it a point to visit the various seminaries in the Philippines. I was at one seminary, and I was visiting the rector. We talked about psychological counseling and therapy for seminarians. And he said, "Oh Father, we don't do therapy here in the Philippines. I said, "well where do send a priest that you have trouble with? And he smiled, and he looked to the ground and said, "To the United States. "So if it's too good to be true, it might not be true.

Assigning a mentor to the priest to work with him is really very important. Providing the international priest with the skills he needs to be a successful pastor, that's what you need to do. Because if you don't provide this man with the skills he needs to be an effective minister and priest here in the United States, you are creating a simplex priest. I'm afraid that in our presbyterates we do have somewhat of a cast system. And I think that only tends to isolate and alienate the international priests, more so than in the past. A priest is a priest is a priest. They have worked fifty or seventy-five years ago, but I'm not sure if it works today. If you were a successful pastor in Lusaka in Zambia, you may not be a successful pastor in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

3. One of tables mentioned the idea of getting an agreement between a religious community or a diocese to have things spelled out in a very concrete and intentional way. My home Diocese of Harrisburg, Bishop Nicholas Dattilo, many of you may remember him, had a wonderful agreement with a group of Dominicans from Nigeria. The contract is that we have three Dominican priests for a three year term, and they are rotated through. That has had mixed reviews, but yet in the same way, there is a concrete structure in place to receive them, to acquaint them with the diocese and also the diocese helps in the education and formation of their younger members, in addition to paying them the salary of a parochial vicar. So I think the contract makes things very fair and just. I think the third point being, have an agreement. Have process in place.

4. If you are going to recruit international priests, they really need to participate in an acculturation process. That's a must. And you can sponsor your own within your diocese, and structure your own within your diocese, or you can do it with a particular region - a couple of dioceses get together and do it. I helped with Camden, New Jersey, that has a weeklong program that they do for their international priests. In the United States, currently there are five programs that help international priests acculturate into priestly life and ministry in the United States. All five of these programs are currently under subscribed. So, the programs are out there. I think people need to tap into it because it is something that is going to continue go. I think, lastly with this topic, it helps us with this notion of being intentional about receiving men from other countries as opposed to being reactionary. What do we do when we get them? Or, Father has messed up, how do we calm the storm. Have we given the individual all of the necessary skills to help him adjust to the new cultural context of the United States, so that he could be a source of communion and communio to his parish as opposed to simply doing a function?