George B. Wilson

Every year, as dioceses struggle to meet to the need for priests to pastor the growing Catholic population in the United States, the bishops import more priests from other countries. While the practice varies by diocese, in the aggregate it grows apace. It seems so far to be a helpful stopgap measure. The most significant cultural issues that have arisen—some priests with seriously deficient communication skills and authoritarian, sometimes patriarchal styles of pastoral ministry, for example—are being addressed. (One of the most awkward situations is that of a priest who comes from an English-speaking country but cannot be understood because of an accent that was perfectly intelligible to his own people back home.) High-quality programs promoting accent reduction and cross-cultural sensitivity are now available in some regions, and more dioceses are requiring non-native priests to be accredited by such a program before they may assume a permanent assignment as a pastoral minister.

 

But perhaps the focus on the practical effectiveness of international priests is misplaced. Perhaps it begs the more fundamental question: Will the practice of importing clergy into the United States serve the long-term good of the church universal?

A Comparison: Nurse Shortages

A front-page story in The New York Times on May 24 reported a crisis in U.S. health care brought on by a serious shortage of nurses. To fill the shortage, nursing schools and hospitals recruited students and professionals from poorer countries, such as the Philippines. While the practice appears to be beneficial for the United States, the article highlighted the adverse effect it is having on the countries from which the nurses come. “Health care has deteriorated [in the Philippines] in recent years as tens of thousands of nurses have moved abroad,” the article claims. Since the most precious resource of any nation is its skilled human capital, that resource is diminished whenever skilled workers leave. The president of the Philippine Nurse Association has observed: “The Filipino people will suffer because the U.S. will get all our trained nurses.”

As the United States imports foreign priests, what attention is being paid to the “brain drain” or “skills drain” in the sending countries? How can we justify this when the explosion of converts in some of those countries requires ever more sophistication in leadership, planning and management of the church’s future there?

According to the Times story, it is difficult for nurses from developing countries to “resist the magnetic pull of the United States.” Coming to the United States allows them to improve both their own and their families’ economic status. Nurses overseas “send home billions of dollars each year to their families.”

Experience indicates a similar magnetic pull among the international clergy. The bishops who send their priests to the United States hope that their time abroad will help the priests to become better trained and that the skills they acquire will enable them to improve the church when they return. It is a laudable vision: transfer skills from the wealthy to others who need them. But once the priests have tasted the affluence of the United States, many are reluctant to return to their country of origin. It would take an angelic view of ministerial calling to deny that economics plays a role in some priests’ eagerness to go on “reverse mission” to the United States in the first place. Remember that old saw, “The missionaries came to do good, and did well.”

The magnetism of affluence can have a negative effect on the priests’ work in the United States as well. One hears of priests from foreign cultures who seem to attend as many rituals in the communities of their expatriates as they can, assured of generous cash offerings to send home. The practice is understandable. The priests are far from home, and their families may be in serious economic need. But if this results in neglect of the community to which the priest is supposed to be ministering by his official assignment, his priorities would need realignment.

Emergent Questions

Even such a sketchy comparison between these two scarcities suggests further questions. Looking beneath the rhetoric of reverse mission, we might ask, Is this recruitment practice the ecclesiastical version of a secular scenario, in which the resources of the poor are exhausted to serve the short-term needs of the rich?

An analogous trend can be seen in the way American priests in general are currently being assigned, on the basis of quantity. The parishes with the most parishioners get the priests. As a result, the suburban parishes “get richer” in leadership at the expense of the inner-city and rural parishes. How does such a practice embody “the new evangelization” or a church in mission?

Is our practice of recruiting priests from other countries simply another example of the American penchant for the quick fix? And beyond its consequences for the developing churches, what are its consequences for the U.S. church? Does focusing on our immediate shortage prevent us from considering other available alternatives that might be more pastorally effective (for ourselves and others) in our changing world? If we are going to apply a Band-Aid, we should use one that is effective, but first we need to be sure that such a treatment is suited to the good of the body as a whole. Band-Aids are for minor cuts, not cancer.

A New Study of International Priests

A study by Dean R. Hoge and Aniedi Okure, International Priests in America: Challenges and Opportunities (Liturgical Press, 2006), asks whether U.S. dioceses should keep importing international priests—the authors tend to think they should—and how this could best be accomplished. The book is significant for the wealth of comparative data it offers on the general U.S. Catholic population, the number of U.S.-born seminarians and priests, and the number of international seminarians and priests as well as the countries from which they come. It describes the variations in the ways international priests are trained and ordained, whether and to what extent their home dioceses are compensated for seminary education, and how the international priests are accepted in U.S. parishes after they have been assigned. This information ought to be part of the ongoing discussion about the future staffing of parishes, whether in the United States or elsewhere.
Karen Sue Smith

George B. Wilson, S.J., is a church organizational facilitator in Cincinnati, Ohio. International Priests in America: Challenges and Opportunities

Comments

Maria West RN | 12/23/2006 - 10:37am
Many thanks to George B. Wilson for his column "Priests and Nurses: a tale of two shortages" (12/18).I am a member of a parish that is without a permanent pastor. I am also an emergency room nurse. I think about, pray over and struggle with the nurse and priest shortages daily. I appreciate the column's insight that recruiting priests and nurses from poor countries is a form of neocolonialism; in addition to extracting natural resources- gemstones, timber and, of course, oil, first world countries like the USA are extracting human resources. For my part, I try to encourage others, especially men, to consider nursing as a vocation and to encourage others, especially women, to embrace the priesthood they recieved at baptism by becoming as active as they can in the church. Might part of the solution also be in simplifying our health care and pastoral needs? I'm not at all sure what that would look like, but will be giving it alot of thought and prayer, thanks to America.

Sr. Margaret John Kelly, D.C., Ph.D. | 1/9/2007 - 2:15pm
In his article “Priests and Nurses: A Tale of Two Shortages,” (12/18) Fr. Wilson raises some very pertinent and provocative questions on the service of international priests to the Church in the US. As the director of an Acculturation Program for International Priests, I was pleased that this issue is gaining attention, but I think the brevity of his article may have left some impressions that could be misleading.

First, this is not a new phenomenon. Since its foundation and beyond our early 20th century removal from the “Mission-Countries List,” the Church in the U.S. has been served by a significant number of foreign born priests and the number of incoming missionaries has been greater than the number of outgoing. The difference today is that the nations sending these missionaries are not from the western hemisphere and do not come to serve their own people exclusively. Despite the necessary accommodations, this hemispheric shift, north to south and west to east, has the potential to lead us to a new awareness of the global church, which Karl Rahner recognized as the lasting contribution of Vatican II.

Second, unlike the past when missionaries took on a life-commitment to serve in the U.S., today a large percentage of these international priests are here for limited periods of time. While concerned about the “brain-drain,” Father Wilson rightly points out that many come to earn advanced degrees. Having enriched and been enriched by a different cultural and academic experience, many return to their countries and assume leadership positions. It is helpful also to remember that the cost of priestly formation in some countries is difficult to sustain. In these cases and where pastoral need is a major criterion, inter-diocesan agreements offer mutual advantages.

Finally, I was troubled by Fr. Wilson’s stress on the economic motivation of international priests and his rather broad brushed profile. While the affluence of the U.S. is attractive and there are documented situations of unsanctioned fund-raising, this does not appear to be the norm. Father Wilson also seems to connect neglect of duty with the priests’ remitting of money to their native countries. Without research this nexus needs to be challenged to sort out perfectly legitimate charitable enterprises from exploitation of the system or violations of church policy, both of which tend to be more linked to individual character than to cultural norms.

In short, my experiences with priests from Asia, Africa, Central and South America, and also Europe, cause me to thank Fr. Wilson for his insights and at the same time to encourage openness to these priests while they are with us. They can help us to draw away from our comfortably domestic perspectives into our Global Church where we can recognize and appreciate our human solidarity across nations, languages and races as well as the responsibilities derived from and inherent in that solidarity.

Sr. Margaret John Kelly, D.C., Ph.D Executive Director, Vincentian Center for Church and Society, St. John's University, NY

Joseph P. Nolan | 2/26/2007 - 2:46pm
Nurse Maria West’s letter (1/15) on the priest/nurse shortage article by George B. Wilson, S.J. (12/18), encourages males to consider careers in nursing; but then she writes encouraging others, especially women, to embrace the priesthood they received at baptism by becoming as active as they can in the church. While this is a great idea, it will not solve the priesthood shortage. A more practical approach would be to change entrance requirements for men aspiring to the priesthood or at least make them more uniform nationwide. If one diocese accepts older men, why can’t all dioceses do that? If dioceses accept Episcopalian priests with families and recent converts, why can’t they accept lifelong Catholic males who happen to be single parents? If dioceses accept priest candidates from third world countries or eastern Europe, why do many dioceses require American candidates to live in their diocese of choice for a year before applying?

Gerard Kholar, C.S.Sp. | 2/26/2007 - 2:24pm
In “Priests and Nurses” (12/18), George B. Wilson, S.J., touches on several provocative points that invite comment and further discussion.

The “American penchant” for wanting what it wants, and now, regardless of pernicious consequences applies in this debate about international priests. Any number of priests and seminarians are coming to the States, and not only for the classic reason of serving the immigrant populations now here from their countries of origin.

In the case of Africa, with the phenomenal growth in the number of Catholics in many countries south of the Sahara, their clergy are indeed needed there for pastoral ministries and for formation of future generations of leadership. The avowed aim of the past century and a half of missionary effort has been to prepare indigenous clergy for local needs. Paradoxically, given the historical tribal nature of African societies, many areas have not yet been evangelized, even within countries that have significant pockets of people who have chosen to be Christian. Before talking of reverse mission back to the West, therefore, these newer churches need to seize the missionary moment where they are.

In fact, the resources of the entire church should be directed to the two-thirds of the world’s population that have not yet effectively heard the Gospel even for a first time. If there happens to be a surplus of priests in one area—and even if there is not, to be true to our biblical imperatives—they need to go where the need is greatest. Further, the local church has more than ordained personnel to send: a missionary church need not be a clerical church.

Father Wilson included financial considerations in this discussion. Ironically, some of the strongest growth economies of the world currently are those countries where the most missionary effort is begging to begin.

The Second Vatican Council mandated that the bishops of the church—locally, regionally, universally—assume the missionary mantle. This conundrum of equitable use of resources is one worth their serious attention, for the integrity of their local churches and because all of the folks “out there” are waiting.

Maria West RN | 12/23/2006 - 10:37am
Many thanks to George B. Wilson for his column "Priests and Nurses: a tale of two shortages" (12/18).I am a member of a parish that is without a permanent pastor. I am also an emergency room nurse. I think about, pray over and struggle with the nurse and priest shortages daily. I appreciate the column's insight that recruiting priests and nurses from poor countries is a form of neocolonialism; in addition to extracting natural resources- gemstones, timber and, of course, oil, first world countries like the USA are extracting human resources. For my part, I try to encourage others, especially men, to consider nursing as a vocation and to encourage others, especially women, to embrace the priesthood they recieved at baptism by becoming as active as they can in the church. Might part of the solution also be in simplifying our health care and pastoral needs? I'm not at all sure what that would look like, but will be giving it alot of thought and prayer, thanks to America.

Sr. Margaret John Kelly, D.C., Ph.D. | 1/9/2007 - 2:15pm
In his article “Priests and Nurses: A Tale of Two Shortages,” (12/18) Fr. Wilson raises some very pertinent and provocative questions on the service of international priests to the Church in the US. As the director of an Acculturation Program for International Priests, I was pleased that this issue is gaining attention, but I think the brevity of his article may have left some impressions that could be misleading.

First, this is not a new phenomenon. Since its foundation and beyond our early 20th century removal from the “Mission-Countries List,” the Church in the U.S. has been served by a significant number of foreign born priests and the number of incoming missionaries has been greater than the number of outgoing. The difference today is that the nations sending these missionaries are not from the western hemisphere and do not come to serve their own people exclusively. Despite the necessary accommodations, this hemispheric shift, north to south and west to east, has the potential to lead us to a new awareness of the global church, which Karl Rahner recognized as the lasting contribution of Vatican II.

Second, unlike the past when missionaries took on a life-commitment to serve in the U.S., today a large percentage of these international priests are here for limited periods of time. While concerned about the “brain-drain,” Father Wilson rightly points out that many come to earn advanced degrees. Having enriched and been enriched by a different cultural and academic experience, many return to their countries and assume leadership positions. It is helpful also to remember that the cost of priestly formation in some countries is difficult to sustain. In these cases and where pastoral need is a major criterion, inter-diocesan agreements offer mutual advantages.

Finally, I was troubled by Fr. Wilson’s stress on the economic motivation of international priests and his rather broad brushed profile. While the affluence of the U.S. is attractive and there are documented situations of unsanctioned fund-raising, this does not appear to be the norm. Father Wilson also seems to connect neglect of duty with the priests’ remitting of money to their native countries. Without research this nexus needs to be challenged to sort out perfectly legitimate charitable enterprises from exploitation of the system or violations of church policy, both of which tend to be more linked to individual character than to cultural norms.

In short, my experiences with priests from Asia, Africa, Central and South America, and also Europe, cause me to thank Fr. Wilson for his insights and at the same time to encourage openness to these priests while they are with us. They can help us to draw away from our comfortably domestic perspectives into our Global Church where we can recognize and appreciate our human solidarity across nations, languages and races as well as the responsibilities derived from and inherent in that solidarity.

Sr. Margaret John Kelly, D.C., Ph.D Executive Director, Vincentian Center for Church and Society, St. John's University, NY