12/28/08

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.
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
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.”
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(for the rest of the story)