When a priest from Nigeria celebrates Mass in the Diocese of Burlington, Vt., or a priest from Poland celebrates Mass in San Antonio he is offering Catholics in the United States more than just the gift of the opportunity to participate in the Eucharist. 

Your experiences

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He is offering them a glimpse of the universal nature of the Church, and a deeper understanding of what “mission” means, said San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller. 

Archbishop García-Siller, who was born, raised and ordained in Mexico, has spent most of his ministry in the United States. In 2010, his archdiocese was home to 155 international priests, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for the Protection of Children and Youth. 

The USCCB counted 6,453 international priests that year. The greatest numbers come from India, Philippines, Nigeria, Mexico and Ireland. 

The number of international priests — those ordained in other countries — serving in the United States has held steady at about 16 percent since 1985, according to Dean Hoge and Aniedi Okure’s 2006 book, “International Priests in America: Challenges and Opportunities” (Liturgical Press, $19.95). 

Gifts from far away

international priests
Discussions of international priests often turn on potential problems, but that misses the great gifts they bring. W.P. Wittman, Ltd.

Discussions of international priests often turn on potential problems — the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth counted them as part of a report on how dioceses try to ensure that they have adequate background checks and training in sexual abuse awareness. According to Hoge and Okure, parishioners and native U.S. clergy also complain about their language skills, the way some of them relate to women and lay ministers and differences in the way they understand the role of the priest. 

That misses the great gifts that international priests bring. 

Some of those gifts are similar to what a U.S.-born priest brings, Archbishop García-Siller told Our Sunday Visitor. 

“What I bring is my history, my culture, the love of God, the love of family, the sense of community with neighbors. The main thing I have brought here is my vocation,” he said. “That could be in almost any culture.” 

He also brought with him the devotions practiced in the part of Mexico where he grew up: the posadas before Christmas, the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

He also brings the sense of being sent by God, the archbishop said.

Modern-day missionaries

In Matthew 28, Jesus calls his apostles and sends them out, just as international priests are sent to minister far from their homes. “The missionary piece is what gives us our experience of Pentecost. What a gift that is,” he told OSV. 

To bear the most fruit, that gift must be received by a local community that is ready to accept it. For that work, there must be not only preparation, but also maturity on both sides. 

The priest must come with the understanding that “you were called and sent, and you have a lot to offer. The people must understand that we need what you have to bring here. You are needed, you are wanted. That is how we build family, neighborhood, community,” Archbishop García-Siller said. “The embracing goes both ways. That leads to a sense of connectedness. … This is where the Church becomes very rich. The Catholic Church is one, with so many faces, so many expressions.” 

That has been the experience of Xaverian Father Peter Fernandes, from Goa, India, whose superior sent him to the United States about 10 years ago. 

“We are one Church, no matter where we are,” he said. “It’s the same Mass no matter where we are.” 

There are cultural differences, Father Fernandes said. He finds that people in the United States see the world in more black-and-white terms and tend to follow rules without a lot of room for negotiation. Because of that, more Catholics in America walk away from the Church because they feel they cannot fulfill all of its obligations. 

Asians, on the other hand, see more shades of gray. They understand that no human is perfect. That leaves room for humility, he said, and God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Multicultural mindset

Father Fernandes ministered about four years in Portland, Ore., before coming to Chicago, where he is pastor of St. Timothy, an ethnically and culturally diverse parish. While the parish was built by German and Irish Catholics, it now serves a largely Filipino congregation with some European, Indian, Hispanic and African-American families. 

When Conflicts Arise
Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio said he knows that the mutual embrace that leads to a faith-filled relationship does not always occur between international priests and receiving parishes and dioceses. 
 
The trouble could be the diocese or community trying to take advantage of the priest coming in, or the priest trying to take advantage of his opportunity to come to the United States. Priests should go through a period of acclimatization to learn and become accustomed to the ways of their new home, the archbishop said. Churches also should help them work on their English skills.
 

In a parish of immigrants, Father Fernandes said, an immigrant priest can be a “welcome sign.” In primarily English-speaking communities of European-American Catholics, some people are less open. 

“I think some people pretend not to understand,” he said, in lightly accented English. 

Archbishop García-Siller said that priests who come to the United States must understand that American culture is not monolithic. 

“The U.S. that is receiving you, it is not one mindset, it is not one culture,” he added. “Even though people talk about ‘the American culture,’ it’s a multicultural reality that receives the priest who is coming in from the outside. That’s especially true in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago. Globalization is very present.” 

That leads to another special gift that international priests can bring to the United States, according to Hoge and Okure: They can minister to people from their own ethnic groups or countries of origin. In the case of a Polish priest ministering to Poles in Chicago, he can offer the sacraments in the language in which the community “first met God,” and share in their customs and traditions. 

While international priests can be a wonderful expression of the universality of the Church, Archbishop García-Siller said, it’s just as important for dioceses to develop their own local vocations to the priesthood — and for those vocations to reflect the makeup of the dioceses they come from.

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.