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Posted April 5, 2006

What Do We Mean When We Say International Priests Need To Be Inculturated?

Taken From the Study International Priests in America
[Already cited on our website]
by Dr. Seung Ai Yang

In addressing the question of “how” priests of other countries should be brought in, this study reports the words of many who emphasize the importance of the acculturation and orientation of international priests. As much as I agree on its importance, I believe that we must deliberate on the meaning of “acculturation” first if we don’t want to perpetuate the postcolonial tragedy.

What do we mean by acculturation of international priests? If we mean that we teach them to think and behave just like “American” Catholics, it is not only unfeasible but also unethical. It is unfeasible because one’s patterns of thought and behavior are cumulatively shaped by one’s cultural location through a long shared history and traditions. The cultural locations of international priests and American Catholics are quite different. It is unethical because it often requires international priests to deny who they are and to abandon the “home” traditions that have nourished them. This is actually a hidden expression of cultural imperialism patronizing the international priests.

If acculturation means a process that helps international priests to be capable of ministering to Catholics in America and to advance the mission of the church while keeping their integrity as who they are, then it must happen in both directions. For the sake of convenience, let us imagine an American parish of predominately white members that receives an international priest. Both the international priest and the parish community need to learn the differences of their cultural contexts to understand why they think and behave in the ways they do. Understanding the different contexts will involve self-reflection. The international priest might find that he is internalizing the colonists’ version of Christianity as well as the mindset of colonist insisting that it is “universal.” The parish community could find that they are, in site of themselves, racists who judge people based on skin color and have a tendency to look down upon different cultures and ideas, believing that their own is superior or absolutely correct. Both sides might realize that when one blames the other for narrow-mindedness and rigidity, it is actually oneself who is narrow-minded or rigid.

The self-reflections, then, enable us to understand why we think and behave directly and to make room for listening and acknowledging different voices and cultures. We then find the need to be willing to negotiate to find our common ground. The negotiation should be made on the basis of the gospel and the mission of the church, which will lead the people not to impose their own culturally bound ideas as absolutely correct or “universal.” We will also be able to understand that the differences among us are often God’s gracious gift to us to recognize the limitedness of our nature and to recover from it by learning from each other and working together. Then we will no longer hate or blame others for our differences, but will be able to give thanks to God, who graciously provided us with abundant diversity.