As a mission territory for many years, the United States first saw priests from Spain, France and Portugal arrive as early as 1523 to bring the sacraments and liturgy to the immigrant populations settling on our coastal shores.
Within a few hundred years, priests continued to arrive from England, Italy, Sweden, Germany, Poland, Yugoslavia and many other eastern European countries. They continued to move westward as the country was settled and developed.
Often, such priests are referred to as “foreign clergy.” However, Father Bill Vos, former St. Cloud Mission Office director, says “this term can often carry with it negative connotations; thus, the term ‘international clergy’ is preferred.” But, he adds: “I think it is more appropriate to call these priests ‘missionaries.’”
Some years ago, St. Cloud Bishop John Kinney adopted a policy for receiving international clergy within our diocese. He started with a statement from the U.S. bishops in a document titled “Called to Global Solidarity” which, for him, expressed the “why” of inviting these priests into the diocese.
“We are members of a universal Church that transcends national boundaries and calls us to live in solidarity and justice with the peoples of the world,” the document states. “One of God’s greatest gifts is the universal character of the Church, blessing and calling us to live in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in faith.”
Bishop Kinney went on to indicate that this sense of solidarity can be effectively created when priests from Africa, Asia, India or Latin America enter into ministry among us.
Answering a call
In the last 20 years, our diocese has welcomed nearly 40 international priests in various capacities — either through university studies, as permanently assigned (incardinated) clergy, priests born abroad and ordained for our diocese, and as missioners from our diocesan partnerships with Maracay, Venezuela, and Homa Bay, Kenya.
These missionaries have not been coming here just to fill a gap or a hole where we might locally have some shortages in priests. Many of these wonderful men are taking their assignment to the next level and making it a vocational call from God as a disciple in a foreign land.
They are arriving on a temporary basis, usually for three to five years, with the possibility of a renewal if both the “sending church” and bishop and the “receiving church” and bishop agree. In each case, these are assignments made with a diocese where we already have an ongoing relationship as well as with an inter-diocesan partnership where we relate on many different levels. Thus, these priests receive their posting based on a prior understanding and agreement between Bishop Donald Kettler and their respective bishop.
This exchange is to help all of us explore the benefits of having a priest who can bring to us an appreciation of the church of Venezuela, of Kenya and of India, to name a few. We see their presence as a concrete expression of our uniquely global church, and we value the opportunity to bring these global dimensions, various expressions and experiences of the church in the developing world to the faithful of the Diocese of St. Cloud.
Therefore, this involves more than just the administration of the sacraments. This is a missionary vocation, an ability to work cross-culturally with the church in “mission territory.”
Unfortunately, not every international priest represents a total success story. It is important for us to remember that they have given up many things of comfort as they might know it, their family and friends, their preferred way of being.
Entering into global mission requires special gifts such as language learning and the ability to adapt cross-culturally. Often, these qualities, or lack thereof, are not evident until the person actually enters into the immersion process. For some, it is more challenging than for others.
For example, English is often the third or fourth language for the missionary priest, and it’s also a difficult language to pick up quickly. Then, there are the many cultural assumptions on issues such as gender roles that can sometimes be rather shocking to a person from the global South.
The acculturation process can sometimes be painful and oftentimes challenging. Having to cross cultures, allowing oneself to become a real and invested part of their environment and growing in relationship with the people to whom they minister to, is one of the most difficult and yet most rewarding experiences for those involved.
Fortunately the St. Cloud Diocese uses a number of resources to help prepare international priests for life and ministry in central Minnesota.
In each case, the length of time and the type of cross-cultural training are designed to fit the particular needs of the priest on his arrival.
This can include bringing in professionals to accompany them through the process of acculturation or arranging for the newly arrived priest to participate in an extensive program in centers designed just for this purpose. The Mission Office staff is principally responsible for accompanying these priests through the various cultural adaptations and adjustments of serving as missionaries in our diocese.
Of course, this all takes some getting used to in our communities where the color of our skin might not vary much from our neighbors down the street. The accent and the language could take more time and patience to truly “hear” but can become a window into another way of seeing the world and our church.
Success in benefiting from these representatives of our global church depends in equal measure on the willingness of those of us in the “receiving church” to be culturally stretched by the experience of the missionary priest’s ministry.
It is our responsibility to welcome these international priests to live and work among us so that true accompaniment can take place, and inevitably we are able to walk together in this world and the next.
Elizabeth Neville is director of the St. Cloud Mission Office.