Foreign Parish Groups, Priests and Deacons: Facing the Realities of a Shrinking Church

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The second part of Americathe new documentary “People of God: How Catholic Parish Life is Changing in the United States” focuses on a small community in the Diocese of Green Bay where the parishes are merged and grouped under the responsibility of a pastor, assisted by a Pakistani priest and a deacon. As we learn how vibrant this community in small town Antigo, rural Wisconsin was, you feel a twinge of heartache. But the people themselves seem to see that with these changes also come new perspectives on parish life.

Mergers and consolidations can end up empowering deacons and laity to take on greater responsibility in the church community and streamline management. Adding foreign-born priests can bring new ways of thinking about the church. And the decrease also brings humility and wisdom. As the parish priest, Father Joel Sember, points out, having large parishes is not the same as changing hearts: “I just have to be content to serve Jesus without worrying about numbers. Do hearts change? Do minds change? Are people growing in their faith? That is what matters.”

It is inspiring to see how people allow their community’s challenges to function as a source of inspiration rather than cause for complaint.

It is inspiring to see how people allow their community’s challenges to function as an inspiration and a source of growth rather than a cause for complaint. But there are burdens here that prompt deeper thought. As the film shows, foreign-born priests now make up one-sixth of the clergy in the United States. They are being used nationwide as a palliative to fill the growing holes in priestly vocations. As Father Sember rightly points out, clergy from other countries and cultures bring not only more men capable of celebrating the sacraments, but also other experiences of community and of God, new ideas about to be Church.

But I’m not sure I know a Catholic at this point who hasn’t also had frustrating experiences dealing with clergy from other countries. More importantly, people talk about difficulty understanding certain accents, a problem exacerbated by the general aging of the English-Catholic community in the United States and the hearing problems that often result. Foreign-born priests can also sometimes bring perspectives on culture, gender, and power that don’t fit the American context, or even do harm.

How do bishops and other church leaders respond to these Catholics and what do they face?

To a large extent, these problems are not the fault of these priests. What kind of training do they receive before starting to work in the United States? Are they required to take continuous language lessons? Are they supervised and do they receive regular feedback? Mechanisms like these are essential both for the parish and for their own sense of connection and well-being.

The situation in communities like Antigo raises other questions: How do bishops and other church leaders respond to these Catholics and what do they face? You rarely hear them talk about these issues. While our leaders are busy debating whether the church can even consider making women deacons, a process that could very well take decades, God’s people need priests. now, as well as their clergy. Really, how much must ordinary Catholics suffer and their communities wither for local leaders to talk more seriously about ordaining married men or women?

The people of Antigo and their parish staff are making the best of a difficult situation. They are a true model of what it is like to put your life in God’s hands and believe that what awaits you is not just manageable but a gift. But part of what they face is not a function of necessary realities, but of the decisions of church leaders. And it is much more difficult for some Catholics to understand.

Questions for reflection and conversation:

  • How is life in your parish? Has your community experienced a decline since you’ve been there?
  • How many priests do you have? And how many full-time parish staff? How are their spirits?
  • Have you had foreign-born priests in your parish? What things went well? What didn’t go so well?
  • Are your deacons and priests, foreign born and American, receiving support and feedback to improve their work as priests? If not, what kinds of feedback mechanisms might be useful?
  • Where do you think your parish will be in 20 years?

Then listen:

In this bonus episode of the Jesuitical podcast, hosts Ashley McKinless and Zac Davis talk with Jim McDermott, SJ, and “People of God” producer Sebastian Gomes about the many parishes across the United States where churches are closing, he there is a shortage of priests and many young Catholics are abandoning the faith.

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