Cultural Orientation Program for International Ministers

The Intercultural Context of Ministry in the United States

The Catholic Church in the United States today faces the challenge of integrating a steadily growing number of foreign-born clergy. When taken together, the number of men born in another country who were either ordained priests here or have come to work here after ordination on a permanent basis is on the rise. In 2006 it was estimated 13% of all priests working in ministry in the United States were foreign-born;1 today, some dioceses and regions of the country appear to have higher concentrations.

Moreover, a significant historical and cultural shift has been taking place—principally a shift from a Euro-centric ministerial culture to one that is more globalized or at least varied. The following factors are on display in this shift:

  • Prior to 1985, the majority of foreign-born clergy and religious in the United States were from Europe, whereas today they are predominantly from Asia, the Pacific Islands, Africa, and Latin America.
  • While today many foreign-born priests and religious work among immigrants from their own countries who now make their home in the United States, many are also assigned to work among non-immigrant populations or in ministries to immigrant populations other than their own.
  • In this recent shift, many of the foreign-born priests and religious have found it difficult to adjust to life and ministry in the United States. At first most foreign-born clergy are struck by what is positive in their new culture—openness, kindness, opulence, etc. Faced with cultural differences over the longer term, however, many experience the downside as well: discrimination and disillusionment that can lead to making severe moral judgments about their American parishioners.
  • Diocesan administrators and foreign priests themselves report how other clergy often consider foreign priests “band-aids” or “second class” and marginalize them from diocesan life.
  • The situation with foreign-born religious carries particular nuances due to the community structure of religious life and gender role expectations in the church.
  • The presence of foreign-born clergy and religious in parishes requires adjustment on the part of parishioners too. There are the complaints about accents and cultural misunderstanding. For others, there is simply the fact that the Church is changing. Their beloved American-born priests and religious are now fewer in number, and everywhere in the Church they see more languages and cultures. Foreign-born priests become, in a sense, symbols of larger demographic transformations.

Thus, the issues are not just with the foreign-born priests and religious themselves. Because the Catholic Church in the United States has a culture of parish-centered life, and because traditionally parishes are staffed by priests and religious, the growing situation of cultural discontinuity in which priests and/or religious do not share a common culture with those to whom they minister already has strongly affected the way the church understands itself, particularly the way the church understands its basic locus of ministry, the parish.

While significant questions of church politics persist (the growing presence of foreign-born priests and religious is welcomed by some as a way to bolster the traditional parish-centered and priest-centered way of life in the church and reviled by others who hope that a more lay-centered way of organizing church life might be found), Hoge and Okure’s study highlights factors which suggest that both poles in the “political” debate may become farther removed from reality. On the one hand, those who hope to bolster the traditional parish- and priest-centered life of the church often fail to notice how the questions of cultural discontinuity between priests or religious and the people they serve have significantly altered the very parish life they had hoped to sustain. On the other hand, those who hope to see church life changed so that more and more lay ministry becomes the norm seemingly fail to notice that the pressure to put foreign-born priests, seminarians, and religious into ministry positions in the United States continues to grow. Many mistakenly believe this pressure comes only from only certain bishops and dioceses when in fact it is nearly universal, driven by the demand to fill parish vacancies when priests and religious die or retire and few new native-born recruits arise to replace them. Thus the growth of the number of foreign-born clergy and religious is likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

One final comment on context. Most foreign priests come from cultures that are somewhat if not quite traditional. They are used to large families, religion is the center of their family and cultural life, other professional options while growing up are quite limited. In the U.S., families are quite small, religion is one area of family life and professional opportunities abound for youth. All of which is, in many ways, the tip of an iceberg of cultural expectations that foreign priests face.

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(1) Dean Hoge & Aniedi Okure, International Priests in America: Challenges and Opportunities (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006)