An African Priest: Shortage of American Priests Leads to More Diversity in the Nation's Catholic Churches

By Morgan, Mandy | National Catholic Reporter, October 17, 2003 | Go to article overview

An African Priest: Shortage of American Priests Leads to More Diversity in the Nation's Catholic Churches


Morgan, Mandy, National Catholic Reporter


It is Sunday morning at St. Sylvester Parish in Chicago. The old wooden pews are packed with squirming children, pre-teens and their parents. Most of the 500 black-eyed, olive-skinned people sitting beneath the ceiling fans and the stained-glass saints can trace their roots to Puerto Rico.

At the front of the church, Fr. Maina Waithaka, a 30-year-old Kenyan priest, preaches in Spanish. His Kenyan accent contrasts as sharply as his black skin in this predominantly Hispanic parish. Waithaka has been serving as the church's associate pastor for a year.

Some see his presence as a sign of unity in diversity.

"Catholic means universal church," said Fr. Michael Herman, pastor of St. Sylvester Parish and Waithaka's colleague. "There's no way that a white man moving into an all white parish can bring a sense of universality except in words. An African man moving into a Hispanic community who is living in the United States, which is predominantly white, is a sign of great diversity--just by his presence. And that's a great gift that he brings."

This Kenyan priest in flowing white and green vestments puts a face on what Herman sees as a growing trend.

"For many years, the United States was the source of missionaries for the world," Herman said. "We now find ourselves in more of a vocation crisis in the United States. There are fewer people entering the priesthood, in places like Aft-lea, Latin America and Europe, where there is more of an abundance of vocations, we see a reversal. Now those places are sending missionaries to work permanently here."

And so, many American dioceses look abroad to fill empty altars.

"In Chicago, we could not meet the pastoral needs of the people without the international priests," said Fr. Jerry Boland, the archbishop's delegate for externs and international priests in Chicago, where there are 150 international priests.

In 1999, there were about 7,600 foreign-born priests--16 percent of total priests--living in the United States, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. The greatest numbers of foreign-born priests were living in California, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah, and were principally from Ireland, the Philippines, Mexico and Vietnam. New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania had the next highest numbers of international priests, coming mostly from Ireland and India.

Of the priests ordained in 2003, 28 percent were foreign-born and mostly from Vietnam and Mexico, according to a survey by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. About a quarter of all seminarians studying in the United States during 2002-2003 were not from the United States.

Waithaka was dissatisfied with the leadership of the Nairobi seminary where he was studying for the priesthood and communicated this to an American priest who had been a missionary and a mentor in his hometown. Fr. Thomas McQuaid, now the director of archdiocesan and international students at Mundelein Seminary, had a suggestion for his former protege: Come to Chicago and complete your education for the priesthood at Mundelein.

"He [McQuaid] said think and pray about it," Waithaka said. "He enumerated various challenges: cultural differences, language differences, the difference in the way the church is here, and that I would not be able to see my family all the time. He wasn't fuzzy about it. He measured the challengers more than the good."

At Mundelein, Waithaka joined about 80 other international students (out of a class of 200) in theology and American culture classes. He spent six weeks studying Spanish in Mexico.

And after a year at St. Sylvester Parish, he has gotten rave reviews from some of his parishioners. …

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