Excerpted from chapter 9 of International Priests in America: Challenges and Opportunities, by Dean R. Hoge and Aniedi Okure, O.P. (Liturgical Press, 2006, 174 pp., $19.95). Used by permission.

Preparing internationals for ministry extends beyond the classroom. North America attracts numerous immigrants from around the world who begin their first ministry assignment as soon as they pass through customs at the airport: Singaporeans migrate to British Columbia to start Chinese churches; Greeks arrive in New Jersey, ready to lead urban Orthodox congregations; and Filipino Catholic priests move to Arkansas to serve as pastors of small-town Catholic parishes.

These kinds of immigrant ministers may bypass North American seminaries and theological schools, but should they? With extensive experience in providing education for immigrant students, schools may be equipped to extend their reach to these other newcomers -- by providing mentors, in continuing education programs, and in seminars focused on cross-cultural ministry.

After holding symposia on immigrants who serve as Catholic priests in America, the National Federation of Priests' Councils commissioned new research to determine how the newcomers are faring in America. At the federation's request, sociologist Dean R. Hoge and Dominican Father Aniedi Okure produced a report (published in book form as International Priests in America) based on numerous interviews with immigrant priests and North American clergy and laity.

The following is an excerpt from chapter 9 of their report, “Orientation Programs for International Priests.”

Our research has convinced us that international priests need better orientation for ministry in the United States. About 380 to 400 of them are beginning ministry here each year, of whom 30 percent were trained in American seminaries. What preparation did they get when they came? From our survey it appears that a small percentage got excellent orientation, a larger percentage got a small amount, and the rest got nothing.

Our survey, focus groups, and interviews agreed fairly well on the priests' needs. They can be summarized under three headings. First, some of the priests need help with English, either comprehension or speech, with an accent that Americans understand. (A number of international priests feel that their English is every bit as good as the twang they hear from Americans, and they feel no urge to adjust to the American version of English.) Another portion expect to be ministering mainly to their own ethnic group, and for them English training is optional. On average, American laity see English training as more important than the international priests do.

Second is orientation to American culture. This encompasses both a broad understanding -- such as information on the American founding fathers, the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. -- and also concrete information on the problems of everyday life.

Third is creation of bonds with other priests. As we have seen, loneliness and lack of support afflict a large number of international priests.

Help with the English language

Priests lacking fundamental knowledge of English need classroom instruction. A Polish priest told us that priests need good English to be real pastoral leaders and spiritual leaders. With minimal English they can say Mass, but this should be seen as a temporary minimal situation, not at all adequate for real ministry.

Helping priests who speak English but with an accent unfamiliar to Americans calls for a different program. Our advisors agreed that in that case the priest needs a tutor or speech coach.

A professional church musician had suggestions:

I would like a person assigned to help the priest with speech communication training who would meet with him afterwards. He would say that “This word has a meaning of …,” or, “If you could alter it a bit, it would be clearer to people.” Priests could also be recording their homily so that they can go back and say,“Oh, I think I should modify that.” 

A vicar for priests in California told of hiring a company to help the new priests:

Just this week we had an information program about a course in mastering American English that we are going to offer in September. It's by a company that works with business professionals, helping them to improve their pronunciation and reduce their accents so that they could communicate more effectively in their business.

Orientation to American culture

All our advisors agreed that more orientation is needed than is now being offered. They also agreed that orientation needs to take place over a period of time, maybe a year, probably with an initial educational session, then periodic meetings or consultations. Simply having an introductory series of lectures for a few days at the beginning is ineffective because it provides no opportunity for the priest to consult with an advisor later when culture shock hits.

There were two more consensus conclusions. First, the best orientation program would include a mentor or a person designated to accompany the new priest for a period of time. The mentor should be publicly announced so that everyone knows who he is and so that the international priest feels totally free to make use of him. The mentorship should continue for at least a year. Finally, a good orientation involves not only the international priest but also the receiving parish and its pastor.

Aside from these areas of consensus, we heard many reports of what is being done and many ideas of what should be done.

A Vietnamese priest talked about the obligations of the pastor:

Don't just put the men into the parish, where the pastor doesn't know much about them. That makes it miserable to all parties -- the pastors, the parishioners, and the priests coming in. The pastor presumes that these guys have a driver's license, know how to drive a car, know how to cope, how to do laundry, how to do this and that. For example, a guy from Africa. There the priest is viewed like a king, and people take care of him and his needs. But if you put him in a parish here, he will say, “What's going on here?”

Several people listed topics that should be included in orientation. The topics include driving, driver's training, cooking for oneself, etiquette -- such as using a knife, fork, and spoon -- hygiene, including the necessity to bathe daily, street slang, street language, shopping without haggling, dealing with the post office and government offices, computers, medical and dental care, and credit cards.

A director of an acculturation program:

It can't be that you just show them around for a weekend and then you leave them alone, because there's constant things going on: banking, credit cards, how do I manage the accounts of the parish, how do I get a car, how do I get insurance? The priests need to be assigned a mentor, not just somebody that they happen to find informally. It has to be intentional.

Strengthening bonds with other priests

Priests need bonds with other people from their home country, and they need bonds with American priests.

A lay church musician in the East:

We need to help them develop relationships and friendships, you know, the normal human kind of interactions that will nourish them, that are really important. I can't help but think how isolated a lot of these guys feel at times in the communities where people don't really "get” [laugh] who they are and what their background is. I think the priests are probably going to need the skills to begin to make those connections happen.

We were told repeatedly that orientation programs must involve more people than just the international priests themselves.

A parish director of religious education in the East:

I think before a priest is stationed in a parish, the pastor should make announcements for maybe three or four weeks and talk about welcoming the priest. And I think once the priest arrives, there should be social mixers after each of the Masses for a number of weeks, where he gets to meet and greet people over coffee and cake, so that people really feel like they know him. Now we just put them in the parish and assign them Masses and assign them baptisms, weddings, and confession schedules, and we don't do anything on our part to help them integrate.


Top Topics
Roles & Responsibilities
Board Essentials

Back to Issue  Read Previous Article Read Next Article

Advertise With Us

Reach thousands of seminary administrators, trustees, and others in positions of leadership in North American theological schools — an audience that cares about good governance, effective leadership, and current religious issues — by advertising in In Trust!

Learn More