Importing priests for U.S. Catholics
By Laurie Goodstein
International Herald Tribune
December 28, 2008 OWENSBORO, Kentucky:
Sixteen of the Reverend Darrell Venters's fellow priests are running themselves ragged here, each serving three parishes simultaneously. One priest admits he stood at an altar once and forgot exactly which church he was in.
So Venters, lean and leathery as the Marlboro man, a cigarette in one hand and a cellphone with a ringtone like a churchbell in the other, spends most of his days recruiting priests from overseas to serve in the small towns, rolling hills and farmland that make up the Roman Catholic diocese of Owensboro. The Rev. Titus Ahabyona, center, a priest from Uganda, at a retreat in Kentucky, which has several priests from abroad. (James Estrin/The New York Times)
He sorts through e-mail and letters from foreign priests soliciting jobs in America, many written in formal, stilted English. He is looking, he said, for something that shouts: "This priest is just meant for Kentucky!"
"If we didn't get international priests," he said, "some of our guys would have had five parishes. If one of our guys were to leave, or, God forbid, have a heart attack and die, we didn't have anyone to fill in."
In the last six years, he has brought 12 priests from Africa, Asia and Latin America who are serving in this diocese covering the western third of Kentucky, where a vast majority of residents are white. His experiences offer a close look at the church's drive to import foreign priests to compensate for a dearth of Americans, and the ways in which this trend is reshaping the Roman Catholic experience in America.
One of six diocesan priests now serving in the United States came from abroad, according to "International Priests in America," a large study published in 2006. About 300 international priests arrive to work here each year. Even in American seminaries, about one in three of those studying for the priesthood are foreign-born.
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," Venters said, "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."
But there have been victories as well, when Kentucky Catholics who once did not know Nigeria from Uganda opened their eyes to the conditions in the countries their foreign priests came from - even raising $6,000 to install wells in the home village of a Nigerian priest serving in Owensboro.
In earlier eras, the Catholic church in the United States depended on foreign priests from places like Ireland, Italy, Germany, Poland and Belgium. But they had usually accompanied their immigrant flocks, and ministered to their own people in their native language.
Nowadays, however, the missionary priests have little in common with the Americans who often come to them for advice and solace in times of crisis. In Owensboro, it falls to Venters, who grew up on a farm in Illinois and has barely traveled outside the country, to find ways to bridge the often large cultural divides. One foreign priest had never seen a microwave. Another thought the frost on his car one morning was the work of vandals.
"There's this assumption that a priest is a priest," said Venters, who, as the vicar for clergy, is essentially the bishop's assistant on personnel issues. "On the church side of it, that's correct. We are a universal church and the rituals are the same, so he knows how to be a priest. The challenge is, he does not know how to be a priest in the United States."
To succeed, Venters has also had to learn to navigate the immigration system, which has become so restrictive since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that even priests with invitations to work have trouble getting into the country.
At one point, he sent so many FedEx letters to Nigeria that the Department of Homeland Security suspended his account until he proved he worked for a legitimate church.
In 2002, when Venters began his recruitment drive, he was looking at a diocese that, like many in the United States, had growing needs and fewer priests to serve them.
Hispanic Catholic immigrants were pouring into Kentucky, drawn by jobs in poultry plants and construction. The diocese estimates that its Catholic population of 60,000 includes 10,000 Spanish-speaking parishioners who arrived in the last 10 years.
But the pool of priests was shrinking, from retirements, deaths and a handful who were removed from the ministry after accusations of sexual abuse of young people. They were also growing elderly: Eight were older than 70.
Many dioceses faced with shortages were shutting or consolidating parishes, but that was not an option for Owensboro. "Because we're so rural," Venters said, "closing parishes doesn't make sense. Some of our counties just have one Catholic church."
At first, Venters felt discouraged by the stilted English and obsequious tone of the letters that foreign priests sent. Then an e-mail message caught his attention. The English was clear, the tone humble. "I welcome your assistance and advice," said the message from a Kenyan priest, Chrispin Oneko, who was serving five impoverished parishes in Jamaica.
Venters asked him for an "audition tape" of his preaching, and found the homily thoughtful - the accent pronounced, but clear enough. He invited the priest to fly to Owensboro to meet Bishop John McRaith.
The foreign priests in Owensboro earn the same amount as their American counterparts: a base salary of $1,350 a month, plus $60 for each year since ordination. (The pay scale varies among dioceses, and many pay foreign priests significantly less than Americans.) They can also earn as much as $130 a month in Mass intentions, or special requests, plus $50 for weddings and $25 for baptisms. For the African priests, it is a windfall.
Venters knows that many of the foreign priests send part of their income home, to help with school fees, food and medicine for their families. And yet, he said, he did not believe money, though a benefit, was the reason the priests were willing to come to America.
"A lot of them, they know we need priests," he said. "And after getting to know them, I believe they truly have a missionary spirit."
The notion of having to go out and recruit priests was foreign to Venters. He had converted to Catholicism as a young adult, had a college degree in agribusiness and was trying to figure out his next step when he heard a priest give a homily about being of service to others.
He phoned the Diocese of Owensboro and signed up for seminary. His class at St. Meinrad School of Theology had 48 students, and in 1989, he was one of seven new priests ordained by McRaith.
But within 10 years, the vocations dried up. It has been five years since a new priest was ordained in Owensboro. The next ordination, of two priests, is expected next year.
Most of the priests serving in Owensboro support Venters's recruiting drive, but some voice doubts. The Reverend Dennis Holly, with the Glenmary Home Missioners, an American order dedicated to serving regions that are not predominantly Catholic, like Western Kentucky, believes America is spending money to attract priests from countries that have even greater shortages.
"We experience the priest shortage, and rather than ask the question, 'Why do we have a priest shortage?' we just import some and act like we don't have a priest shortage," Holly said. "Until we face the issue of mandatory celibacy and the ordination of women, we can't deal with the lack of response to the invitation to priesthood."
But Venters is a pragmatist. Those were good questions, he said, "But, in the meantime, you have to respond to the needs of people." http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/12/28/americas/priest.php