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Kentucky Catholic diocese recruits international priests

Many parishes in US operating shorthanded

By Laurie Goodstein
New York Times News / December 28, 2008
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OWENSBORO, Ky. - Sixteen of the Rev. Darrell Venters's fellow priests are running themselves ragged, each serving three parishes simultaneously. One priest admits that he stood at an altar and forgot exactly which church he was in.

So Venters, lean and leathery as the Marlboro man - a cigarette in one hand and a cellphone with a ringtone like a church bell in the other - spends most of his days recruiting priests from overseas to serve in the small towns, rolling hills, and farmland that make up the Roman Catholic Diocese of Owensboro.

He sorts through e-mail and letters from foreign priests soliciting jobs in America, many written in formal, stilted English. He is looking, he said, for something that shouts: "This priest is just meant for Kentucky!"

"If we didn't get international priests," he said, "some of our guys would have had five parishes. If one of our guys were to leave, or, God forbid, have a heart attack and die, we didn't have anyone to fill in."

In the last six years, he has brought 12 priests from Africa, Asia, and Latin America who are serving in this diocese covering the western third of Kentucky, where a vast majority of residents are white. His experiences offer a close look at the church's drive to import foreign priests to compensate for a dearth of Americans, and the ways in which this trend is reshaping the Roman Catholic experience in America.

One of six diocesan priests now serving in the United States came from abroad, according to "International Priests in America," a study published in 2006. About 300 international priests arrive to work here each year. Even in American seminaries, about one in three of those studying for the priesthood are foreign born.

Venters has seen lows. Some foreign priests had to be sent home. One became romantically entangled with a female co-worker. One isolated himself in the rectory. Still another would not learn to drive. A priest from the Philippines left after two weeks because he could not stand the cold. A Peruvian priest was hostile toward Hispanics who were not from Peru.

"From a strictly personnel perspective," Venters said one day over a lunch of potato soup with American cheese and a glass of sweet tea, "the international priests are easier to work with than the local priests. If they mess up, you just say, 'See you.' You withdraw your permission for them to stay."

There have been victories as well, when Kentucky Catholics who once did not know Nigeria from Uganda opened their eyes to the conditions in the countries their foreign priests came from - even raising $6,000 to install wells in the home village of a Nigerian priest serving in Owensboro.

"You're taking a shot in the dark getting these guys," Venters said. "But honestly, other than a few, we have had really, really good results."

In 2002, when Venters began his recruitment drive, he was looking at a diocese that, like many in the United States, had growing needs and fewer priests to serve them.

Hispanic Catholic immigrants were pouring into Kentucky. The diocese estimates that its Catholic population of 60,000 includes 10,000 Spanish-speaking parishioners who arrived in the last 10 years.

But the pool of priests was shrinking, from retirements, deaths, and a handful who were removed from ministry after accusations of sexual abuse. They were also growing elderly: eight were older than 70.

Many dioceses faced with shortages were shutting or consolidating parishes, but that was not an option for Owensboro. "Because we're so rural," Venters said, "closing parishes doesn't make sense. Some of our counties just have one Catholic church."

At first, Venters felt discouraged by the stilted English and obsequious tone of the letters foreign priests sent.

Then an e-mail message caught his attention. The English was clear, the tone humble. "I welcome your assistance and advice," said the message from a Kenyan priest, Chrispin Oneko, who was serving five impoverished parishes in Jamaica.

Venters asked him for an "audition tape" of his preaching, and found the homily thoughtful - the accent pronounced, but clear enough. He invited the priest to fly to Owensboro to meet Bishop John J. McRaith.

The foreign priests in Owensboro earn the same as their American counterparts: a base salary of $1,350 a month, plus $60 for each year since ordination.

Venters knows that many of the foreign priests send part of their income home to help with school fees, food and medicine for their families. And yet, he said, he did not believe money, though a benefit, was the reason the priests he recruited were willing to come to America.

"A lot of them, they know we need priests," he said. "And after getting to know them, I believe they truly have a missionary spirit."

Most of the priests serving in Owensboro support Venters' recruiting drive, but some voice doubts. The Rev. Dennis Holly of the Glenmary Home Missioners, believes America is essentially taking more than its share of resources.

"We experience the priest shortage, and rather than ask the question, 'Why do we have a priest shortage?' we just import some and act like we don't have a priest shortage," Holly said. "Until we face the issue of mandatory celibacy and the ordination of women, we can't deal with the lack of response to the invitation to priesthood."

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