The growing shortage of Catholic priests in the United States has reached near critical levels. There are now 3,200 churches without a resident priest. And this number will surely increase because the American Church can only replace one-third the number of priests it needs to maintain current levels. As a stopgap, U.S. churches have been recruiting priests from other countries, but some Church officials worry that this is unfair to both Americans and the rest of the world.
In a rented gymnasium, in a suburb outside New York City, the Spanish-speaking members of St. Brigid's Parish are grateful to have a priest who speaks their language. It makes all the difference for churchgoers like Rosa Caballaero. She says it's the same mass but in a different language. "She prefers the Spanish," explains Gonzalo Lopez, as he translates for her. "When there are no masses in Spanish, they don't go." The young man, who is a seminary student and intern at St. Brigid's, adds, "This is my experience in another parish."
St. Brigid's can offer a Spanish mass because it has a visiting priest from Columbia. As Director of Clergy Personnel in this diocese, Monsignor Robert Guglielmone recruits about 30% of his clergy from abroad. "We are obviously feeling a vocation crunch, as I think more dioceses in the country are," he says. "So we do need the assistance of foreign priests because we don't have sufficient priests to meet the needs that we have."
But according to Professor Dean Hoge at Catholic University of America the priest shortage in the United States is no more dire than elsewhere. "By world standards, the United States does not have a priest shortage. We have more priests per 1,000 Catholics than most of the world."
Currently, there is one priest for every 1,300 American Catholics. That's nearly three times as many priests per parishioner as in Africa or Asia. And since countries in Africa and Asia are usually where international priests come from, Professor Hoge questions the fairness in continuing to recruit them. "There's a justice question. Why are we taking them, just because we're rich and they're poor?" he asks.
This question has troubled Monsignor Guglielmone, as well. And while he does worry about a "brain drain" effect that takes spiritual resources from their home communities, he also points out that most foreign priests only stay in the United States for three to five years, and usually it's to get an education. "So any priest that comes to the U.S. to study is not coming with a bankroll of money. He is expected to work in the parish and we pay his tuition." He adds that, in a way, the American Church is helping priests from Africa get advanced theological degrees.
There is little doubt that immigrant communities are well served by international priests. Father Cine Syriace came from Port de Paix, Haiti to serve the Creole community at St. Brigid's, but that accounts for only one of his masses. He does another five in English, even though, as he explains, "My English was really, really, really poor. I was struggling in English because it is not an easy language, like if you are learning Creole, you are going to struggle so."
Father Cine says his English has improved greatly, but it took time -- something Catholic University Professor Hoge sees as a problem. "The accent is difficult and that gets in the way of communication. They are very well suited to serve in immigrant parishes. But if he is asked to serve an American parish his English is probably going to be so poor that it's not going to go well."
That concern is echoed in parishes across the country. Some American Catholics feel alienated and frustrated when they have trouble understanding the service. Mary Corham acknowledges the difficulty but is more polite in her criticism. "Sometimes when they first come here they're a little hard to understand. But as we get used to their accented English I think they're easier enough to understand."
Until more Americans join the priesthood, American Catholics will have no choice but to get used to the foreign accents of a truly catholic Church.