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Priests From Other Nations Learn to Adjust to Life, Ministry in US
Beth Griffin
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Thursday, June 17, 2010
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JAMAICA, N.Y. (CNS)—Priests who have come from other countries to serve in the United States "cannot assimilate totally into American culture," but the more they can, the better they "can serve the people," according to Msgr. John O'Brien, a Brooklyn pastor.

"The more you can participate in the life of the people, the richer your experience will be," he told participants at the 10th annual Acculturation Seminar for International Priests.

Msgr. O'Brien was one of more than 20 speakers at the program held June 7-11 at St. John's University in Queens. It was organized by the Vincentian Center for Church and Society.

Sister Margaret John Kelly, a Daughter of Charity who is the executive director of the Vincentian Center, told Catholic News Service this year's seminar is a reflection of the global church. There were 38 participants from 14 countries now serving in five U.S. dioceses.

"You really see the richness and unity of the church," Sister Kelly said. "We're prepared for moving globalization from the economic level to a much higher human and religious level."

The Vincentian residential acculturation program is one of three in the country, according to Sister Kelly. The others are at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio and Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles. Some dioceses also operate programs for international priests serving locally, she said.

The Vincentian seminar was established in response to "Guidelines for Receiving Pastoral Ministers," a 1999 statement of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Migration, she said. In the context of the program, acculturation is understood as a process of coming to know and accept the roles, norms and values of a different culture and function effectively and comfortably there while maintaining one's cultural identity.

The speakers covered myriad topics including church development in the United States; anthropological, sociological, psychological, legal and immigration issues; pastoral and interpersonal communications; financial management; and the role of the priest as leader, team member and collaborator.

Sister Kelly said there is more scrutiny of international priests before they arrive than there was in the past, when arrangements made with them to serve in the United States were more casual.

Nevertheless, she said, "education of international priests has not gotten the attention of the receiving dioceses" and acculturation programs have not been well attended. But she said several dioceses now require priests from other countries to attend such a program before they can be incardinated into the diocese in which they are ministering.

Sister Kelly said, "Some people are uncomfortable being a 'receiving' church, which is a fallacy, because the church in this country was built by international priests and over the years, we have brought in many more missionaries than we have sent out."

At least 16 percent of active U.S. priests are foreign-born, according to a 2000 survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

Sister Kelly said communication and cultural differences are the two biggest hurdles for international priests. Speakers said those areas intersect in preaching, because U.S. Catholics value clarity and brevity.

"When you get into a church here and people can't understand you, you are from Mars. The tolerance level is different here," said Msgr. Ronald Marino, who is director of the Brooklyn diocesan Catholic Migration Office and vicar for migrant and ethnic apostolates.

"You might preach like St. Dominic or St. Anthony in your home country, but you will be more valuable than St. Anthony here if you are a brief preacher," he said.

Msgr. Ralph Sommer, a pastor from the Rockville Centre Diocese, suggested that priests with heavy accents take an accent reduction class. He said it is difficult for listeners to be evangelized or moved by the witness of a priest they cannot understand.

He said it is better to give a short clear homily of eight minutes than to go "on and on" for 20 minutes and alienate the congregation.

Msgr. O'Brien said priests must learn to speak English well to relate to the children of immigrants. This is particularly urgent in multiethnic dioceses, where a single parish may serve immigrants from many countries, he said.

Sister Kelly said cultural challenges faced by priests from other countries range from looking people in the eye to collaborating with well-educated women. Some are surprised by the number of poor people in the United States or by the weakness of the family unit in some places, she said.

The program's speakers offered practical advice based on experience as both hosts and newcomers. They urged participants to ask questions in their new assignments. Father Sommer said, "As a sign of respect and welcome, I may presume you know what to do, and think I'm being paternalistic if I tell you, but that could be a disaster. Always ask!"

Msgr. Marino said international priests are "a gift of the Holy Spirit to the church in the United States. I view your presence here as part of God's plan for the church in the U.S."

"You are very much appreciated and in my mind you're heroic for giving up your family and your food and making a great sacrifice for this crazy American experience," Msgr. Sommer said.

Father Theo Trujillo, a Colombian serving in Charleston, S.C., since 2005, told Catholic News Service the seminar "is a great opportunity to know more about this amazing culture and be more aware of how to interact properly. It's a very rich experience to share this with other international priests."

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