On priests: domestic and imported

Photo: James Estrin/The New York Times

I'm usually not happy when my newspaper deliverer either fails to drop off my copy of The Boston Globe or leaves another paper instead. But when the New York Times appeared on my doorstep this morning, I was amazed to find a front page article, above the fold, on Catholic priests - and it wasn't about sexual abuse by clergy.

Goodstein's piece is the first of three articles on the topic of importing priests from abroad to serve in American parishes. An excerpt follows and the complete article can be found here. Interesting reading - I look forward to the rest of this series.
December 27, 2008

OWENSBORO, Ky. — Sixteen of the Rev. 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 Father Venters, lean and leathery as the Marlboro man — a cigarette in one hand and a cellphone with a ring tone like a church bell 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.

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 a third of those studying for the priesthood are foreign-born.

Father 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,” Father Venters said one day over a lunch of potato soup with American cheese and a glass of sweet tea, “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.

“You’re taking a shot in the dark getting these guys,” Father Venters said. “But honestly, other than a few, we have had really, really good results.”

(for the rest of the story)


  1. I read the NY Times story with interest and I hope that you will post the stories that follow. I understand why foreign priests are being imported, but I feel as if this is strictly a "band-aid" approach. These priests are desperately needed to serve as priests in their own countries. Often the language barriers cannot be overcome (so much for a good homily.) Until people (laity and clergy alike) have the courage to speak out on women's ordination and mandated celibacy, the priest shortage will continue to grow and these stopgap measures will proliferate, but not solve the problem. IMO, not the right solution.

  2. Other churches, including most of the mainstream Protestant Church, have suffered losses in membership and ministry. Look at the Anglican Communion, in shambles these days, with theological and even property disputes! And these churches have married clergy and female ministers. As Pope John Paul II definitively pointed out, the Church does not have the authority to ordain women, because Christ Himself chose only men to carry out that function. (If anyone deserved ordination, one would think, it would be the only other sinless person on earth, Mary. And yet, she was not chosen, nor were the faithful women at Calvary.)

    I also reject the contention that language problems cannot be overcome. I've attended services with priests from many countries, and find their homilies thought-provoking and intelligible. Most speak several languages -- unlike Americans. Why should priests be different from other immigrants in their ability to adapt to a new country and to enrich their community? The idea that they cannot smacks of discrimination, in my opinion.

  3. Had I read this article in print instead of online, I too would've zoomed in on it being "above the fold." Fascinating. Instead, I zeroed in on how Venters felt free to frame the issue from "a strictly personnel perspective."

    My guess is that Joseph and Mary Average Catholic don't realize the extent to which the Church views the priest shortage as exactly that -- a personnel issue. Never mind that this personnel issue that could be solved by drawing upon a willing work force that just so happens to feel called to vocation.

    And yet, for various reasons, these folks are not allowed to serve in these ways by the institution we call church...an institution that Jesus of Nazareth, let alone Jesus the Christ would not have imagined taking its current form. My guess is that he would've been more inclined toward chavurah which, by definition, is more inclusive.

    And how sad is this: I waffled between posting this anonymously and by name, opting in the end to take the high road (not taken).

    My prayer for vocations includes healing the divisions that are causing unnecessary pain -- and personnel issues.

  4. What an interesting article.

    Here in our diocese we do not have too many foreign priests, but when I was in the NY Archdiocese, we had many.

    It is a mixed blessing - I met some really lovely priests and they generally served with great love but also with much difficulty.

    As to the topic of ordaining women or married clergy - I am always sad when any conversation on the topic is stopped.

    Who knows what the answer is if we can't even speak?

    And if the truth of God prevails, no speech can block it in my opinion.

  5. Fran wrote: "Who knows what the answer is if we can't even speak?"

    As noted above in another comment, the Church has definitively declared that it knows the answer and has given it.

  6. In our diocese we have a number of imported priests and they are invaluable. Our parish had a priest from India who is an experienced pastor (had a large parish that included a school). He was warmly welcomed and in fact some parishioners held a large fundraiser for his favorite hometown orphanage and it was a huge success! Currently we have a very newly ordained priest from Mexico who struggles a bit with the finer points of English (but hey, so do I!). He is very pastoral, very warm and friendly to all. We are blessed. So to any parish that has imported priests, I say welcome them and count your blessings!

  7. "...an institution that Jesus of Nazareth, let alone Jesus the Christ would not have imagined taking its current form."

    This thought, expressed above, has also been expressed by Concord Pastor in another post. I am surprised anyone would believe Christ would not, could not imagine the Church as it currently exists. The Incarnation was planned, was it not? At a particular moment in history, a particular place, with particular people (the Jews) and a ruling superpower (Rome). Are you suggesting Christ did not understand the consequences of His actions? The times and the place led to a male, hierarchical church.

    In his biography of Jesus Pope Benedict warned against being taken in by the image of the historical Jesus being promulgated by many Protestant scholars and ignoring His fully human and Divine nature.

  8. "anonymous" wrote: "This thought, expressed above, has also been expressed by Concord Pastor in another post."

    What post is referenced here?

  9. "...the Church has definitively declared that it knows the answer and has given it."

    Yes, and that is what I, if asked, tell folks in a formal catechetical environment. However, privately, I believe that the Church (not in our life time) will and must change about this issue. I am not as courageous as some (like Father Roy Bourgeois and the women he supports) but I believe that there will be growth along those lines. Hopefully, not with the medieval punishment of "excommunication' hanging over their heads which can only hurt the Body of Christ, the church which I love.

  10. Dear Jesus, we need your help. Please come back and tell us how you want us to proceed in the matter of the priest shortage. And, if what you tell us differs from what the institutional church says, I think they might be willing to listen to you even though they don't seem to be willing to listen to us. Thank you for listening.

  11. The faith and polity of Catholicism is built on the belief that the Spirit of the Risen Christ never ceases to guide and infuse the whole Church with wisdom and truth. The "anonymous" comment above suggests a scenario which is outside the boundaries of Catholic ecclesiology.

  12. CP, can you please expand on your response on 12-29-08 at 4:10 PM? I'm not sure what you mean by "The "anonymous" comment above suggests a scenario which is outside the boundaries of Catholic ecclesiology." Thanks

  13. Michael: What I mean is that in Catholic theology we believe that there is a unity between the mind of God, the power of the Holy Spirit, the magisterium based on the authority of scripture and tradition, and the sensus fidelium. This does not mean that there's not room for growth and development in what we believe and teach but to separate out the various elements noted above and to speak as if Jesus might come back to corporate headquarters and straighten out the board of directors because the stockholders aren't happy - is outside the boundaries of Catholic ecclesiology.

  14. "...the Church has definitively declared that it knows the answer and has given it."

    I don't remember the board of directors ever consulting the stockholders about this issue. I think that Vatican II is so far in the rear view mirror that the importance of "the people of God" and sensus fidelium is often overlooked by the bishops chosen by JPII. Many times "The Church" is used when what's really meant is only the hierarchy.

  15. Doesn't a board of directors have an obligation to listen to the stockholders? Does the sensus fidelium have to reach critical mass before it is perceived to have value?

  16. Michael: you raise some important issues and I would agree that in the areas you mention there is much room and need for collaboration. Still, the notion that Vatican II democratized the Church (which may not be what you believe but which seems to be what many think) is simply not based in the documents.

  17. Another "anonymous:"

    I may have not been clear and perhaps I suggested the opposite of what I intended: I certainly don't see the church as a corporation modeled on a board of directors and stockholders and did not intend to submit that as a model for discussion.

  18. CP I think it's just too easy, and dismissive, to say in effect, "the church is not a democracy." I understand that. However, I find it interesting that the selection of the pope, one of the most important decisions the church makes is done by the democratic vote of the cardinals.

    The hierarchy is most comfortable operating in black and white. They discern what is right and proclaim it to the laity. The laity obey the rules. If the laity ask questions, they are reminded who is in charge. If they continue to ask questions, they are bad Catholics. If they persist, they are denied the sacraments or excommunicated.

    I believe you used the right word, to describe the intent of the VII documents, collaberation. I believe the hierarchy is at least uncomfortable, and at most afraid of collaboration, because they believe it is a challenge to their power.

    If the church is to renew itself, the hierarchy, clergy, and laity need to feel comfortable operating in the grey, where ideas are exchanged honestly in a non-threatening, respectful environment and discernment among ALL can lead us to God's will.

  19. Michael:

    Again, I am in agreement with much of what you write. I'm not sure that I consider a conclave to elect a pope "democratic." The cardinals are not elected by the people nor are they appointed to represent them - not to mention the fact that the vote is secret and the cardinal's take a solemn oath prior to the conclave promising not to disclose even conversation leading up to the voting.

    In my own small way, in this corner of the blogosphere, I try to offer a place where, as you put it, people "feel comfortable operating in the grey, where ideas are exchanged honestly in a non-threatening, respectful environment and discernment among ALL can lead us to God's will."

    Be assured that my work here is not without its critics as I try to provide an open forum to which you are always welcome and especially so because you are willing to use a screen name which allows me to have a sense of the thread of your comments.

  20. I think the deck is stacked against the sensus fidelium. It is so frustrating and discouraging to try to have a conversation with the hierarchy. They don't seem to want to have a conversation with the laity. They don't seem to want to hear different viewpoints. I am surprised that Benedict XVI wouldn't be more open to hearing a variety of viewpoints. After all, he spent his whole career in academia. But that is not to say we can't continue to tilt at windmills if we feel so inclined. Perhaps, the elusive, impossible dream will one day come true.

  21. Hello CP, you make a very good point about democracy and representation. You said, “The cardinals are not elected by the people nor are they appointed to represent them” I believe in the early church the people did have a say in who their local priests and their bishops would be. This was a wise selection process – not a vote, but a voice. The clergy felt a bond with, and responsibility to, their congregation because the congregation had a role in their selection, a “vote of confidence”.

    I’d like to relay a story about the banking system that has a bearing on the church, as well. Recently, an economics expert said that one of the major problems that lead to the collapse of the banking system is that it has “separated” the lenders from the borrowers. In the olden days, the lenders and the borrowers lived in the same community, knew each other, had common roots and interests. A borrower would do everything they could to repay their loan because they knew their neighbors had supplied the funds. They were responsible and accountable to each other. Today, mega-banks lend to almost anyone and are willing to take more risks. In many cases they sell the loans to others thereby passing along the risk, leaving someone else holding the bag. The borrower has less loyalty to a faceless institution than they did to their neighbors.

    Some of the same can be said about the church. They have separated the laity from the clergy and the bishops. The laity has no say in who will lead them. For the most part, their leaders are not from their local community. Certainly, they all believe in the teachings of Jesus. But they do not know each other, have common roots, interests, or bonds. They are in their jobs only temporarily. They serve at the pleasure of their superior and answer only to their superior. In some cases, they take more risks.

    I have seen this in my own parish. A prior pastor decided to undertake a mutli-million dollar construction project, against the advice of the parishioners (who would ultimately pay the bill). Nevertheless, parishioners rallied to support the project, pledging enough money to cover the original estimate. Without approval from, or the knowledge of, the parishioners, the pastor spent 50% more than the original estimate. There wasn’t enough money to repay the loan. The pastor was transferred, leaving the parishioners holding the bag.

    If there was a bond between the pastor and the parishioners, if there was responsibility, accountability, and mutual respect, if he was one of their own, there would have been a much closer bond, this would never have happened.

    You can say the same about the sexual abuse crisis. A priest or a bishop would be even harder pressed to tolerate the abuse of a child, if he personally knew his family. How could he look Mrs. Collins in the eye and put the eucharist on her tongue every Sunday if he knew her grandchild, Bobby, was being sexually abused by a brother priest, or if he knew bishop Bernard was covering up the abuse?

    This lack of a common bond and common experience, accountability and responsibility is multiplied exponentially by “importing” priests from other countries. The priests are one more step removed from the congregation.
    I fully agree with Msgr. Bosco Puthur, the rector of St. Joseph Pontifical Seminary in Mangalapuzha, who is quoted in one of these articles about the importation philosophy. “It is not a solution. It is only a stopgap that does not solve the problem.” The hierarchy needs to face the problem now, in collaboration with the laity. How can we attract more people to the priesthood, now? You had a post a while back that addressed this.
    Extraordinary times call for extraordinary solutions, flexibility and creativity. Parishioners have valuable experience and education. If they participate in developing the solutions, through the discernment process, they will be stakeholders and work harder to make the choices succeed. If parishioners and clergy work together, respecting each others experiences, needs, and limitations, while practicing patience, God will help us succeed. These decisions need to be made in light of the needs and values of each local faith community. One size never fits all.
    Some of the possible solutions include: praying for vocations, expanding the role of deacons, examining the possibility of making celibacy optional, ordaining married men, exploring bringing priests who have left the priesthood back into active ministry, ordaining women (maybe as deacons for starters), counting on lay people to handle the administrative duties in a parish and allowing the priests to focus on sacramental and pastoral service, and revisiting the Mass schedule and the possibility of lay-lead Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest. The hierarchy seems to be reluctant to engage in this discussion. They may see it as a challenge to their power. If they wait too long, it will be too late.
    In closing, I truly appreciate this open forum and the opportunity to exchange thoughts honestly here, in the grey. I read this blog every day. It is vitally important, especially in these trying times. I encourage people posting here to post their names and stand behind what they post. I don’t think it’s fair to post controversial information and remain anonymous. Thanks again for providing this forum. Happy New Year.


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