Importing priests (updated)
Today’s New York Times has an article by Laurie Goodstein about the phenomenon of foreign priests being recruited to work in U.S. dioceses. It’s a colorful look at the ups and downs of this increasingly common arrangement, as observed in the diocese of Owensberg, Kentucky.
[Diocesan Vicar for Clergy] Father Venters has seen lows. Some foreign priests had to be sent home. One became romantically entangled with a female co-worker. One isolated himself in the rectory. Still another would not learn to drive. A priest from the Philippines left after two weeks because he could not stand the cold. A Peruvian priest was hostile toward Hispanics who were not from Peru.
“From a strictly personnel perspective,” Father Venters said one day over a lunch of potato soup with American cheese and a glass of sweet tea, “the international priests are easier to work with than the local priests. If they mess up, you just say, ‘See you.’ You withdraw your permission for them to stay.”
As Goodstein points out, missionary priests serving U.S. Catholics is not a new phenomenon. But in the old days you used to find them serving their own ethnic groups and immigrant communities. Now an “international priest” is likely to have very little in common with the community he serves. That can lead to humorous mixups and more serious clashes. But it can also be broadening — for me, praying the Mass with Catholics whose culture is different from my own is a profound, humbling encounter with the universal nature of the Church. It’s not always comfortable, but it is usually rewarding.
Of course, reflections on cultural diversity are all well and good, but they don’t always help you get past an accent you can barely understand or a preaching style you find off-putting. (My old parish has an African priest in residence who, when he first arrived, was in the habit of delivering 40-minute homilies, as was apparently customary in his homeland. I understand he was gently persuaded to adapt his preaching to American expectations.) And we expect more from our priests than just the celebration of Mass. It’s one thing for these men to fill in on the altar, another thing for them to step into everything else a diocesan priest does. I imagine that’s why, as Fr. Venters says in the article, “The longer [the international priests are] in a place, the better it gets.” It takes time to adjust to changes. It takes time to get used to an unfamiliar accent. And it takes time to form relationships — something isolated parishes are particularly starved for.
This article raises a lot of very interesting points — there are details about how the system works, and probing questions from a Glenmary Missioner about whether this practice is a way of avoiding the problem (as well as another example of America taking more than its share of the world’s resources). And it made me wonder about other ways understaffed parishes may be adjusting to the loss of the traditional “pastor” figure. I’m sure that’s a story too complicated to be wrapped up in a newspaper article, but it’s one I’d love to know more about. In the meantime, I encourage you to read this story (it looks like there will be follow-up articles too). Does it capture your experience with “international priests”? Does it challenge the way you think about the ones who may be serving in your area? Is it an effective stopgap solution, mutually beneficial, or is it just another way to avoid facing the real problems of the Church in the U.S.?
Update (12/29): Here’s today’s follow-up article about a Kenyan priest now serving in Kentucky. He had the same adjustment problem as the African priest I mentioned above — long homilies!
(12/30): And here’s the third article in the series, about the Church in India and the growing reluctance to send away home-grown priests. I must say, this whole series has been fascinating, and quite well done. Kudos to Laurie Goodstein.