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US Catholic Churches Recruit African Priests


Issac Makovo's smile grows and his eyes twinkle when he talks about his hometown of Mombasa, Kenya. Father Issac is in his third year of ministry in a Catholic Church located in the small community of Hickory, Maryland.

Father Issac was recruited by a Kenyan vocation director who was studying in the United States.

"He asked me, 'Did I want to experience being a priest in a different way, in a different culture?' " he recalled. "At first I was very reluctant because I was comfortable. I knew my culture. I knew my people."

But deep thought and prayer bridged the gap, he said. Now he's the associate pastor at St. Ignatius Catholic Church in the mainly white community.

Father Issac says everything is different in Maryland. The mass is more solemn, whereas in Kenya it is lively, filled with dancing and singing. The same is true for the ministry. The congregation in Kenya, he said, "they ask for help. They have kids in school, and they can't afford the school fees. Most of the time it is financial."

"Here, family life in the U.S. is a big challenge. It's living in a world where there is so much material prosperity and information everywhere. It's very difficult raising your children to your expectations and the expectations of the church," he said.

Recruiting priests

There are more than 6,500 foreign-born Catholic priests in the United States – that's a fourth of the total number of clergy, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA.)

Over the last 50 years, U.S. Catholics increased from 46.3 million to 66.6 million, while the number of priests dropped by a third – from 58,632 to 38,275.

Meanwhile in Africa, the number of priests more than doubled. So the United States started recruiting its clergy.

FILE - Women from a Catholic society wave rosary beads as they watch the convoy of Pope Benedict XVI pass on the way to a meeting between the pope and Cameroonian bishops, in Yaounde, March 18, 2009.

FILE - Women from a Catholic society wave rosary beads as they watch the convoy of Pope Benedict XVI pass on the way to a meeting between the pope and Cameroonian bishops, in Yaounde, March 18, 2009.

Mary Gautier of CARA wrote the 2014 book Bridging the Gap: International Priests Ministering in the United States. She says more than 1,000 U.S. Catholic priests are of African descent. More than 600 are Nigerian and 70, like Father Issac, are Kenyan.

Gautier says the United States is not experiencing the kind of shortage of priests that other countries are, but it is a shortage for Catholics used to having more than one or two priests in a church.

"I don't think it's wrong for us to be attracting these men but I also think we have to be very conscious and intentional about not exploiting their situation or their need," says Father Phillip Brown, rector at the Theological College – the national seminary of the Catholic University of America. His religious order doesn't recruit priests; it travels to Zambia to develop the church there.

Father Phil understands the attraction of the United States to foreign-born clergy.

"I mean priests who come here from a third-world country enjoy a lifestyle as a priest which we would consider to be pretty modest,” he said. A lifestyle “which is beyond what they would have ever dreamed of in their own country. So I think that makes it attractive."

To help clergy from abroad avoid culture shock, the Conference of Catholic Bishops released a document detailing policy and procedures for welcoming foreign-born priests.

FILE - A boy is pictured below a banner of Pope Francis before a special mass at St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Parish where Pope Francis is expected to visit Kangemi, a slum that is home to 650,000 people in Kenya's capital Nairobi, Nov. 22, 2015.

FILE - A boy is pictured below a banner of Pope Francis before a special mass at St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Parish where Pope Francis is expected to visit Kangemi, a slum that is home to 650,000 people in Kenya's capital Nairobi, Nov. 22, 2015.

Missing Kenya

Father Issac is missing the visit of Pope Francis to Kenya next week. His old church in Kenya and others like it have composed new songs in preparation, and almost a million people are expected at the Mass in Nairobi on Thursday.

"The expectations are very high. The Spirits are very high," he said.

He added that it's a good year for Kenya: first with President Barack Obama's visit, and then a visit by the pope.

Father Issac chats daily with his family – three sisters and a brother – in Kenya.

"To be honest with you sometimes I miss them ... a lot," he said.

He says he has no plans to retire in the United States. One day, he will return home to Africa, where everything is a little more familiar.

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    Carolyn Presutti

    Carolyn Presutti is an Emmy and Silver World Medal award winning television correspondent who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters. She has also won numerous Associated Press TV, Radio, and Multimedia awards, as well as a Clarion for her TV coverage of The Syrian Medical Crisis, Haiti, The Boston Marathon Bombing, Presidential Politics, The Southern Economy, Google Glass & Other Wearables, and the 9/11 Anniversary.

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