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Posted July 6, 2005

Motivations of Priests to Come to America

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

In the course of our interviews we talked at length about why priests come to America, and we thereby identified five main motivations which, we are convinced, are the main ones. The first two are the strongest — the missionary impulse and the desire for economic improvement. The missionary impulse has been fundamental in all 2000 years of Christian history, obeying Christ’s command to go, teach, and baptize all nations. A young diocesan priest from Puerto Rico:

“I came to the United States to be a missionary here. You know, the United States is a missionary country. There is no need to go to Africa or to Latin America. America is the biggest missionary land in the world!”


“I think there are some places in Latin America where there is not an abundance of priests.”


“Correct, Yeah. Peru is in need, Ecuador is in need, Bolivia is in serious need. But some places have enough, and they would send some here as missionaries.”

A priest member of a personnel board in California told of the plural motivations of priests who come:

“Let me start with the most positive. Some people come, thinking they are really going to do a missionary work. Let me contextualise that just a bit. In their own country, they have so many priests that they don’t feel that they are really being used enough, and they know that there is a scarcity of priests here in most of the U.S., except back East, so they feel that in coming here they are going to do a service for the church, and this will be a genuine missionary activity.”

“Some are attracted by other priests who are friends of theirs, who said how much they enjoyed ministry here and encouraged them to do the same thing. Another motivation is that someone feels he has been misunderstood in his diocese and wants to come and get a fresh start. Of course, we are a little bit wary of something like that. But sometimes if we contact the bishop, and we get some sort of recommendation saying that yeah, this person may benefit by a fresh start, then we may consider the person.”

A priest from Vietnam mentioned several motivations:

“There may be many reasons that priests are here. When Mr. Marcos was president of the Philippines, many Filipino priests came to this country because they could be persecuted at home. They had to go. Some other priests want to have some adventure. In America you can develop your skills, and that is a new adventure for you. Some other priests think that this is a rich country, so if they come here and work for ten years, they can go back to help their families in the home country.”

A veteran pastor in the West:

“Undoubtedly, many of these men see themselves as missionaries. Many are very fine priests that want to accompany the immigrants. Some, by now, think they want to help save the United States from its priests, from what they’ve heard about priests here. Many of them are admirable, generally. Generally I would give the immigrant priests good grades.”

An older diocesan pastor in the East:

“I suppose when you really look at our own background as Americans having been heavily involved in missionary work, there are a variety of reasons why people wanted to join the missions. It’s even been said of those in the military service, and it was advertised as such: “Join the Navy and see the world.” Perhaps there are some priests that are motivated by reasons other than just the work of proclaiming the Gospel. While that may be their motive, they also have other motives. Some are certainly and almost obviously here to better themselves socially and economically with ministry everywhere. Not every diocese is ready to release a priest for service i other areas too readily when the need is great in their own area. So, are they going to release the ones who are the most capable and effective in their own area? That’s a question that has to be addressed too.”

One American priest was skeptical of the “missionary impulse” voiced by many international priests serving in the United States. He asked, “Why did they come here? If they want to be missionaries, why don’t they go to some other nations where they are needed much more, where the priest shortage is really critical?”

The desire for economic improvement is a less noble motivation, even an embarrassing one to many Catholics. Priests are not supposed to be making life decisions based on considerations of money, the good life, or personal advancement. They are supposed to be dedicated to the needs of the Church. Yet in reality these factors figure into their life decisions in hidden or open ways. We found it commonplace for priests, American or foreign, to say that a desire for money and the good life is in actuality a motivation for many priests. Yes, they told us, this is not really “priestly,” but it is the reality. A majority of international priests try to hide or deny the economic motivation, and a researcher is seldom able to say definitely that it is present or how strong it is. The same motivation exists for American priests, and it can be seen as they maneuver to get into “good” or “plum” parishes in their dioceses.

Salaries of priests are much higher in the United States than in developing nations. A 2001 nationwide survey of Catholic priests found that full-time priests received an average salary (including housing allowance) of $24,400. If they live in a rectory, their housing costs are near zero. Pension payments are in addition. If we bring that figure up to 2005 to account for inflation, we get $26,840. For beginning priests, it would be about $19,000 to $24,000 (McMillan and Price, 2002). We looked at salaries in Nigeria, India, Tanzania, and the Philippines and found that they range from $150 to $400 per month, or $1,800 to $4,800 annually. Housing and transportation is furnished in addition. This dollar figure could be misleading in that the purchasing power of local currencies for simple items like food is much higher, perhaps double. Priests’ total income in these countries places them in a class similar to that of a high school teacher or college professor in their region. A priest who comes to the United States from these countries may expect a threefold to fivefold salary increase, on average.

This motivation to earn good money works in the opposite direction from the missionary impulse, since the call to missions includes sacrifice of living standards and convenience. While the search for economic gain is precisely the opposite — a search for higher living standards and more convenience. The two are in tension, and everyone knows it.

A veteran priest with much experience working with international priests told about different motivations for coming:

“Some of them are here to make money. A lot of this is family oriented. In a big family, the priest gets the education. His brothers and sisters, unless they immigrate, they are not going to be making any money for the family. If the priest immigrates to the U.S., he can make money. If he becomes a chaplain, he can make more money, and oftentimes that money is sent back home. It’s not necessarily for himself, though sometimes it is.”


“So it doesn’t bother you, if a man is here to make money, is that right? Because it’s a family project.”

Priest: I am not so comfortable with it, but I can understand it. Because everybody has mixed motivations for everything they do. So I can live with a priest who is willing to work hard and take the money and send it home. But somebody here who is just here for the money, just for himself, that’s my objection. A few buy nice things and are conspicuous. That kind of gives the others a bad name.”

A director of an inculturation program:

“You have to look at the priesthood globally. Priests are moving around the world for the same reason that everyone else is moving around the world, mainly for economic reasons. We need to understand what the economic reasons are, because they certainly influence what happens. You ask a Filipino, “Why are you here?” He’ll say, “Well, it’s because in my little diocese in the Philippines the bishop doesn’t have a parish to give me that can support a priest, and not only do I have to support myself, I have to support my parents. So here I am!” In the United States a priest can make enough money to send some back home.”

A vicar for priests from California:

Sometimes when I was on the personnel board, we asked some of the priests who’ve applied to come here, “Why are you coming here, because in your own country there is a greater priest shortage than there is here?” One of the comments from one of the priests was very honest. He said, “In my country, there is no such thing as health care, there is no such thing as retirement pensions, and there is no such thing as a regular salary for the priests.” He said, “I have relatives that I care about. I am trying to support them and help them. There is a financial advantage for me to work here.” I suppose it would be comparable to how doctors and nurses come here from Third World countries.”

A vicar for priests in the East:

“They come here for different reasons. If there’s an arrangement with the diocese, that’s different from a priest who realizes that they have plenty of priests at home and wants to come to the U.S. Also we have students who come and who want to stay. At least some of them stay here for the wrong reason. The get enamored by the culture and the wealth. They get comfortable here, and to go home and deal with all the poverty and all the issues, it’s difficult for them. Most of them we wouldn’t encourage to stay.”


“If a man says he would like to be here permanently, what does the bishop do?”


“It depends on the circumstances, the individual, the bishop, and the reason why they are here. There is this one person in the diocese wh cannot go home because of the political unrest in this home country. He is doing extremely well here. I guess if he asks to stay and his bishop agreed long-term, I guess our bishop would say yes. That’s not common. A lot depends on how gifted and adaptable they are, and on the financial issue.”


“Some priests from overseas send money back to their families or dioceses. Is that a common thing among Filipino priests?”


“Yeah, Usually it’s to their relatives. And sometimes it’s for projects. People write to us, asking donations to start a church, to build a church, to have a seminary formation program. I know a priest who set up a scholarship foundation, but it’s only for his family and relatives. They use the interest for their family members.”


“Do you think we should encourage more of this fund-raising, or should we discourage it?”


“Well, I think if it helps, it is good. The value of money is bigger here. When you send one dollar abroad, it has more value there. We have good programs in the Philippines, and we have good projects. Sometimes the parish is poor, so they have to look for funds. And in Vatican II they said that the rich churches should help the poor churches.”

A priest from Poland:

“In some religious orders in those countries, they are signing contracts with a diocese here or with other religious orders, and they get some financial support for sending a priest.”

Two international priests told us that after serving in the United States for ten or more years, they cannot return. By this time they are so acclimated to the American church that they couldn’t tolerate working in the Church in their home countries. For them there is no going home. In the words of one:

“Take my case. It would be very difficult for me to go back and minister in (my country), because of the different way of ministry. I could never be a priests there.”