One would expect to be nervous in his situation, but his warm, frequent smiles make him seem at ease this evening.
Father Paul Choorathottiyil, C.M., newly appointed associate pastor at Sacred Heart of Christ Catholic Church in Lakeville, Indiana, is attending his first meeting of the parish's Rosary Society. This group of middle-aged and older women has already seen him a couple of times in church, and they have read his brief biography in the Sunday bulletin. But this is their first chance to learn more about him.
This seemingly humble man from across the globe, at least for the time being, will be leading their parish into its uncertain future. It quickly becomes clear this November 2007 night that they also are eager to make him feel welcome.
"Are you a good cook?" a woman asks after he thanks the group for the cooking utensils they had given him.
"I'm not," he replies, sparking laughter around the long conference table.
"So donations will be accepted?" another woman asks, prompting more laughs. "If he's starting to look a little thin, there might need to be some donations."
"I'll learn to cook. That's what I'm learning now," he says, appearing slightly embarrassed. "I'm really happy that people are there to help me."
Bishop John D'Arcy of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana recruited Choorathottiyil from Kerala, India to pastor this small rural parish, which had been without a priest of its own for four months. Choorathottiyil, 41, had trained seminarians in India for the past five years and served 12 years altogether as a Vincentian religious priest.
"I wouldn't say I opted for it, but when I was asked, I agreed," he says. "Basically our congregation is a missionary congregation. That means where we are asked to go, we are supposed to go. That is our lifestyle."
Serving in the diocese under a 3-year agreement, which could be extended if things go well, Choorathottiyil is not alone in taking on such a mission. As its priest shortage worsens, the U.S. Catholic Church is increasingly filling empty rectories with foreign-born priests.
By now the shortage has been well-documented. From 1985 to 2005 the number of diocesan priests in the United States fell from 35,052 to 28,702, or 18 percent, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in Washington. During those 20 years, the number of parishes without priests tripled, from 1,051 to 3,251, and from 1980 to 2004 the ratio of priests to laypeople swelled from 1 to 856 to 1 to 1,478.
Some communities faced with rising parishioner-to-priest ratios have openly promoted recruitment of foreign-born priests as a strategy to mitigate the shortage as well as to serve growing immigrant parishes. International priests seem to be most common in the West, the South, and the New York City area, according to Dean Hoge, sociologist at American Catholic University in Washington and a noted expert on the priesthood. (Hoge died in September, 2008.)
About one third of newly ordained priests in 2008 were foreign-born, up from 22 percent in 1999, according to CARA data. Researchers don't yet have any valid estimates of foreign-born priests in the United States, today or historically.
Father Richard McBrien, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, says that the trend is real, even if it cannot be traced to any formal policy. He sees it as part of a pragmatic strategy of "certain conservative bishops who are desperate for more priests but who cannot even consider the possibility of married priests, much less women priests. It's a Band-Aid approach to the priest shortage because it fails to address the systemic causes of the vocations crisis."
Sister Christine Schenk, C.S.J. …