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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"Project aims to help international priests"

From the St. Louis Review
By Jennifer Brinker

On his way home from the airport in New York, the priest was pulled over for a routine traffic stop.

New to the United States, the priest knew that the police in his home country had a history of robbing people and couldn't be trusted. So he did what he thought was the right thing: He fled.

While the story sounds unusual, the idea of a cultural disconnect among international priests living in the United States is not all that uncommon. And a group of priests and laity is hoping to overcome some of those barriers through a special project that they hope will spread across the nation.

The Parresia Project is the brainchild of Sebastian Mahfood, associate professor of intercultural studies at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, and Msgr. Richard Henning, professor of biblical theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, N.Y. Parresia, Greek for openness, has been used in the New Testament in describing the quality of preaching in early Christianity.

Msgr. Henning said that the Church needs to develop a more proactive approach in preparing priests from other countries who come to the United States to minister. The Parresia Project, he said, goes beyond just responding to the needs of an international priest and supports the idea of developing a more systematic approach, using a combination of a human-interest angle and technology.

"We feel the burden should not be entirely placed on the priest who is arriving in the U.S.," Msgr. Henning said during a visit to St. Louis last month. "The process should be more mutual. And this is because we're Catholic. When this priest comes here, it should not just be us saying, 'This is the way it is in America, and you've got to learn.'"

"There should be a sense that you are a brother in the Lord and you have left behind your family and friends and your whole life to come serve us," he continued. "Wouldn't it be nice if the receiving community would have some way of learning ... about the world that he's come from?"

By the numbers

The number of priests who come to the United States from other countries is rapidly rising, both Mahfood and Msgr. Henning noted. In 2004, the Seminary Department of the National Catholic Educational Association conducted a study and found that nearly 18 percent of priests in the United States were born outside of the country. But that figure is out of date, said Msgr. Henning.

"We don't know what it is, because we haven't done the research" recently, he said.

Last spring, John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter wrote that one-sixth of the roughly 40,000 priests serving in the United States are from abroad, and about 300 international priests arrive in the United States every year. Msgr. Henning said he believes those numbers may be conservative given the rapid rise in the number of priests arriving in the United States.

The priest noted that the statistics become higher in certain areas. In the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., for example, about 35 percent of all priests are international, according to Msgr. Henning. The Archdiocese of New York says about 40 to 50 percent it its priests are from other countries.

By contrast, the Archdiocese of St. Louis has much lower numbers. According to the archdiocesan Office of Priests Personnel, there currently are nine priests serving in parishes and four seminarians at Kenrick-Glennon who were born in other countries.

In most cases, said Msgr. Henning, these priests are coming here because of an invitation from U.S. bishops to help serve in their dioceses. Others cases include student priests who are helping serve here during their studies or priests who emigrated to the United States as adolescents and subsequently felt a call to the priesthood here.

An idea is born

The Parresia project was born from previous conversations Msgr. Henning and Mahfood had on seminary formation and an awareness of the increasing number of seminarians from various cultural backgrounds. The two also had been working on another project involving distance learning through seminaries.

"It began to occur to us that distance-learning methods or technologies could be used fruitfully ... in trying to orient a seminarian or priest coming into the United States," said Msgr. Henning.

An anonymous donor awarded the two a $20,000 planning grant, and they spent a year consulting those who provide orientation services to international priests, seminaries and experts in culture, including leaders with the U.S. bishops' Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations (chaired by Archbishop Robert J. Carlson) and the Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church. The same anonymous donor has given the duo a $150,000 grant for the implementation phase of the project.

The project is sponsored by the Seminary Department of the National Catholic Educational Association and the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception. Mahfood and Msgr. Henning said that the project also is supported by a small staff and advisory board and about a dozen volunteers.

Msgr. Henning noted that only three national programs that provide a formal orientation to priests who come to minister in the United States: The Vincentian Center for Church and Society at St. John's University in Queens, N.Y.; the International Priest Internship Program, operated by the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio; and the Cultural Orientation Program for International Ministers at Loyola Marymont University in Los Angeles.

But for the most part, there isn't one widespread formal program to prepare priests before they arrive in the United States. There are a number of local programs operated by dioceses and religious communities, but only about one quarter of arriving priests have any opportunity to attend an orientation program, said the priest.

"Some priests may only know about the U.S. from watching movies," said Msgr. Henning. "That's not real, and that's certainly not the Church."

Human connection through technology

In 1999, the U.S. bishops issued Guidelines for Receiving Pastoral Ministers in the United States as a means of providing support to priests from before they leave their home country to long-term mentoring and support. But when the bishops wrote those guidelines nearly 12 years ago, the idea of reaching to a global audience was more far-fetched. After all, technologies such as the Internet were just emerging on the scene.

Today, however, commercial technological resources such as Skype, an Internet-based video chat, are simple methods that can help improve communication between an international priest and his new community even before he arrives.

"When you know Father Joseph is coming from India, why can't the children at the parish school Skype with him before he comes over?" said Msgr. Henning. "So then it becomes a big moment before he arrives. This is simple, easy stuff that technology makes possible in a way that couldn't have been done before."

The two said they hope dioceses will be able to pool resources so that they can launch programs to educate the faithful about the international priests who come to serve them. Multimedia content, including videos, interviews and photos of international priests, will help serve that end.

"We don't want it to be a matter of textbook learning," said Msgr. Henning. "We envision if the parish council has convened before Father arrives ... and they want to learn about life in his world, you don't want to hand out State Department country guides," said Msgr. Henning. "We would like to have a web-based multimedia database of personal interviews, photos and stories about his upbringing. It's that human-to-human contact that people love."

The future

The Parresia Project is expected to develop over a two-year period, at least initially, said Msgr. Henning, primarily through efforts in advocacy and training others. Another long-term goal is to develop a formal orientation program for international seminarians.

"By the end of these next two years, we hope to have many more people" on board with the project, said Msgr. Henning. "This is an issue that's really larger and more fundamental than we had (initially) realized. We love the Church and we love priests, and our goal is to help a priest be the most effective priest he can be."

For more information on the Parresia Project, visit parresiaproject.org.

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