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January 20 - February 2, 2013

International priests bring gifts to local Catholics Understanding native traditions, languages a help to the faithful

By Michelle Martin

STAFF WRITER

Priests from around the world are celebrating the sacraments in the Archdiocese of Chicago, and when they do so, they are offering Catholics in the archdiocese more than just the gift of the opportunity to participate in the Eucharist.

They offer immigrants a special kinship in their ministry, including, often, the ability to pray with them in their native languages, and they help Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago see the universal nature of the church, said Father Jeremiah Boland, Cardinal George’s delegate to extern and international priests.

“Chicago continues to be a major place of destination for immigrants, and international priests, because they are immigrants themselves, have a special ministry to the most newly arrived,” Boland said.

They also help Catholics achieve a deeper understanding of what “mission” means, said San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García- Siller, who served as an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago from 2003 to 2010.

Archbishop García-Siller, who was born, raised and ordained in Mexico, has spent most of his ministry in the United States, where he has supervised other international priests as a provincial and bishop.

According to Boland, there are about 160 international priests in the Archdiocese of Chicago, with the largest single group coming from Nigeria.

That doesn’t count those who are in religious orders or those who come to the United States and undergo seminary training and formation here, before ordination. The Archdiocese of Chicago invites young men discerning a call to the priesthood who are from Latin America to their own house of formation, Casa Jesus. Tuite House welcomes young men from Africa, and the Bishop Abramowicz Seminary welcomes seminarians from Poland.

While the number of foreign-born priests may have risen in recent years, the number of international priests — those ordained in other countries — serving in the United States has held steady at about 16 percent since 1985, according to Dean Hoge and Aniedi Okure’s 2006 book, “International Priests in America: Challenges and Opportunities” (Liturgical Press, $19.95).

Discussions of international priests often turn on potential problems — the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth counted them as part of a report on how dioceses try to ensure that they have adequate background checks and training in sexual abuse awareness.

According to Hoge and Okure, parishioners and native U.S. clergy also complain about their language skills, the way some of them relate to women and lay ministers and differences in the way they understand the role of the priest.

That misses the great gifts that international priests bring.

Some of those gifts are similar to what a U.S.-born priest brings, Archbishop García- Siller said.

“What I bring is my history, my culture, the love of God, the love of family, the sense of community with neighbors. The main thing I have brought here is my vocation,” he said. “That could be in almost any culture.”

He also brought with him the devotions practiced in the part of Mexico where he grew up: the posadas before Christmas, the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

He also brings the sense of being sent by God, the archbishop said. To bear the most fruit, that gift must be received by a local community that is ready to accept it. For that work, there must be not only preparation, but also maturity on both sides.

The priest must come with the understanding that “you were called and sent, and you have a lot to offer. The people must understand that we need what you have to bring here. You are needed, you are wanted. That is how we build family, neighborhood, community,” Archbishop García-Siller said. “The embracing goes both ways. That leads to a sense of connectedness. … This is where the church becomes very rich. The Catholic Church is one, with so many faces, so many expressions.”

That has been the experience of Xaverian Father Peter Fernandes, from Goa, India, whose superior sent him to the United States about 10 years ago.

“We are one church, no matter where we are,” Fernandes said. “It’s the same Mass no matter where we are.”

Fernandes ministered for about four years in Portland, Ore., before coming to Chicago, where he is pastor of St. Timothy Parish in the city’s Rogers Park neighborhood.

While the parish was built by German and Irish Catholics, it now serves a largely Filipino congregation with some European, Indian, Hispanic and African-American families.

In a parish of immigrants, Fernandes said, an immigrant priest can be a “welcome sign.” In primarily English-speaking communities of European-American Catholics, some people are less open.

“I think some people pretend not to understand,” he said, in lightly accented English.

Many international priests come to Chicago from countries that also send many immigrants here, especially Latin America and Eastern Europe, Boland said. That allows them to minister to people who come from their home countries in their own languages and using their own traditions, Boland said.

At the same time, they also emphasize the global nature of the Catholic Church.

“Faith transcends culture and geography,” he said.