Meeting addresses the needs of international priests

CHAPIN — Approximately 16 percent of all active priests were not born in the United States, according to a study conducted by the Secretariat for Priestly Life and Ministry in 2000. That percentage has probably increased in the last few years, as international priests help American dioceses meet the present needs of the church, especially in areas of rapid growth like the South. The Diocese of Charleston has welcomed 30 international priests to serve its parishes throughout South Carolina. These priests represent many different cultures and countries, coming from places as far away as Asia, India, Nigeria, the Philippines, South America, Mexico and Uganda. Realizing the struggle to adapt to a new culture and language, the diocese wanted to reach out. Under the leadership of Msgr. James Carter, vicar general, and Msgr. Christopher Lathem, vicar for priests, a committee was formed to address the special needs of international priests. Other members are Brother Ed Bergeron, Deacon Al Payne, Bonnie Sigers, and the regional deans. They hope to find ways for the diocese to better serve the international priests whose native culture is not that of the United States.

The committee recently sponsored a gathering for all international priests and their deans at Our Lady of the Lake in Chapin on Sept. 29, the Feast of the Archangels. The Mass was celebrated by Bishop Robert J. Baker, who was also celebrating the fourth anniversary of his ordination and installation as the bishop for the diocese.

“Just as we have sent our American priests out to serve in other countries as missionaries, you are now missionaries for us,” Bishop Baker told the international priests. “We value your presence and thank you for the gift of your culture and the gift of your personal witness.”

In the afternoon, after the priests had lunch with the bishop, they divided into small groups. They had an opportunity to discuss their experiences coming to South Carolina and share their thoughts with the larger group. One of the questions asked was “What has been the most rewarding aspect of your experience in the U.S., particularly in the Diocese of Charleston?” Father John Baptist Busuulwa from Uganda felt particularly touched by how willing people are to help him.

“Catholics in America seem knowledgeable with an open attitude and are more likely to talk frankly to their pastor,” said Father Justin Ukpong from Nigeria, who has been assigned to St. Gerard Church in Aiken.

When it came to telling the most difficult or challenging aspect of their adjustment to ministering in the Diocese of Charleston, or what they missed, Father Justin said he missed the parish life and the food back home. He also misses the “fantastic” liturgy with all the singing; the Mass usually lasts a couple of hours.

“In Nigeria, we are more relaxed, not as hurried as in the U.S.,” he said with a smile.

Capuchin Father Teofilo Trujillo from Colombia, South America, who is now assisting at Our Lady of Peace in North Augusta and with the Hispanic communities in Aiken and Saluda counties, said that support from other priests might help the transition to their new job and to a new culture. Coming from a religious community, he missed that camaraderie and fellowship.

Father Filemon Juya from St. John of the Cross Church in Batesburg, who has lived in the United States for about seven years, said that it is hard for other priests who have not worked in another country for an extended period to understand just how difficult it is to learn about a new culture and expression of faith. Juya also mentioned the struggle international priests have when they begin to immerse themselves in the American culture but still try to maintain their own ethnic identity.

Some comments that kept resurfacing during the small group discussions were the desire to know the English language before actually arriving at their new parish, to avoid miscommunication. They also spoke of the initial loneliness, missing their family, friends and country.

After listening to everyone’s comments, Payne, one of the committee members, felt it was a very positive meeting, where the joys and struggles of their ministry were honestly shared and discussed. The international priests expressed a desire to meet again, perhaps once or twice a year. Payne hopes to invite some of the international priests to serve on their committee so they can bring firsthand experience to the group.