Catholic clergy shortage in the United States eased by African recruits

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WEDOWEE, Alabama (AP) – Reverend Athanasius Chidi Abanulo – using skills honed in his native African country to minister effectively in rural Alabama – determines how long he can extend his Sunday homilies depending on who sits on the benches.

Seven Minutes is the perfect location for predominantly white, retired parishioners attending mass in English at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in the small town of Wedowee. “If you go beyond that, you lose people’s attention,” he said.

For mass in Spanish an hour later, the Nigeria-born priest – one of the many African clergy serving in the United States – knows he can quadruple his teaching time. “The more you preach, the better for them,” he said.

As he moved from one American post to another, Abanulo learned to adapt his ministry to the culture of the communities he serves while infusing a little of the spirit of his homeland into the universal rhythms of Mass.

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“Nigerians are relaxed when they come to church,” Abanulo said. “They love to sing, they love to dance. The liturgy can last two hours. They don’t worry about it.

During his 18 years in the United States, Abanulo served in various chaplain and pastor positions across the country, embodying a current trend in the American Catholic Church. As fewer and fewer U.S.-born men and women enter seminaries and convents, U.S. dioceses and Catholic institutions have turned to international recruiting to fill their vacancies.

The Diocese of Birmingham, where Abanulo heads two parishes, has broadened its search for clergy to burgeoning religious places like Nigeria and Cameroon, said Birmingham Bishop Steven Raica. African priests were also essential in the Michigan diocese where Raica previously served.

“They have been of tremendous help to us in being able to provide the breadth and reach of ministry that we have,” he said.

Africa is the fastest growing region of the Catholic Church. The seminaries there are “pretty full,” said Reverend Thomas Gaunt, director of the Center for Applied Research on the Apostleship at Georgetown University, which conducts research on the Catholic Church.

It’s different in the United States, where the Catholic Church faces significant hurdles in recruiting local clergy after decades of declining church attendance and the damaging effects of widespread clergy sexual abuse scandals. .

Catholic women and married men remain excluded from the priesthood; arguments that lifting these prohibitions would alleviate the shortage of priests have not gained popularity with the highest leaders of the faith.

“What we have is a much smaller number from the 1970s entering seminaries or convents across the country,” Gaunt said. “Those who entered the 1950s and 1960s are now seniors, so the numbers are much more determined by mortality. “

From 1970 to 2020, the number of priests in the United States fell by 60%, according to data from the Georgetown center. This left over 3,500 parishes without a resident pastor.

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Abanulo oversees two parishes in rural Alabama. Her typical Sunday begins with a mass in English at the Holy Family Catholic Church in Lanett, about 200 miles from Birmingham, along the Alabama-Georgia border. After that, he is driven an hour north to Wedowee, where he celebrates a mass in English, another in Spanish.

“He takes to singing and at a lot of his lectures it’s linked to his childhood, and I love hearing those stories,” said Amber Moosman, a first grade teacher who has been a parishioner at Holy Family since 1988.

For Moosman, Abanulo’s preaching style is very different from the priests she has witnessed before. “There wasn’t all of a sudden, the priest is singing, nothing like that … It was very calm, very ceremonial, very strict,” she said. “It’s very different now. “

Abanulo was ordained a priest in Nigeria in 1990 and arrived in the United States in 2003 after a stint in Chad. His first role in the United States was as Associate Pastor in the Diocese of Oakland, California, where his ministry focused on the growing Nigerian Catholic community. Since then he has been chaplain and pastor of a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, and chaplain at the University of Alabama.

Amid the clergy shortage in the United States, nuns have seen the biggest declines, dropping 75% since 1970, according to the Georgetown center.

When Maria Sheri Rukwishuro learned that she was being sent from the Order of the Sisters of the Child Jesus to Zimbabwe in West Virginia to work as a missionary nun, she asked her Mother Superior, “Where is West Virginia?

She was afraid, worried about strangers.

“What kind of people am I going to talk to? I’m just a black nun coming to a white country, ”Rukwishuro told The Associated Press in Clarksburg, West Virginia, where she has been teaching religious education to public and Catholic school students since arriving in 2004. .

Rukwishuro vividly remembers that at her presentation, a little girl walked up to her and “rubbed her finger on my fingers all the way down, then she looked at her finger and she smiled but my heart sank. .. She thought I was dirty “. Despite this, Rukwishuro says most people have been very welcoming. She is now an American citizen and says, “It feels right at home.

One of its first culture shocks was an overnight snowfall. “I really screamed. I thought it was the end of the world, “she said.” Now I love it. I’m doing my meditations on it.

As they integrate into American life, it is common for newly arrived clergy to experience cultural shocks.

For Sister Christiana Onyewuche of Nigeria, a Boston hospital chaplain administering the last rites for the dying, it was a cremation. She remembered thinking, “Like really? … How can they burn someone? I can’t even imagine.

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She arrived in the United States 18 years ago and previously served as president of the African Conference of Catholic Clergy and Religious, a support group for African missionaries serving in the United States.

Onyewuche said African clergy may face communication challenges with the Americans they serve. To remedy this, many dioceses have offered trainings to soften the accents, she said. Abanulo, who took the training in Oakland, says it helped him slow down his speech and improve his pronunciation.

Abanulo, who moved to Alabama in 2020, admits he was initially worried about his last assignment, which meant swapping a comfortable role as college chaplain for two rural parishes.

“People would say to me, ‘Father, don’t go. The people there are rednecks, ”he said.

But after a year and a warm welcome, he says he now tells his friends, “There are no rednecks here. All I see are Jesus’ necks.

The Associated Press’s religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment via The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.


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