Groups and Gripes

Groups and Gripes

In today’s first reading the Greek-speaking Christians are complaining that they’re being treated as second-class citizens in the early church.  So the (Aramaic-speaking) Apostles appoint some Greek-speaking leaders to work with them.  This sort of difficulty with mixed ethnicities between groups and leaders in the church has played out through history, and it involves us as well.

During the great immigrations of Catholics to the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries the different ethnic groups often brought their own priests along.  So staffing German-speaking, Polish-speaking, Italian-speaking, and other parishes wasn’t a major problem for the already-existing U.S. church.  (The problem would occur later when some urban intersections had three formerly-ethnic churches on different corners and the parishes had to be merged.)  For historical reasons the Spanish-speaking church in the Western hemisphere never cultivated a native clergy, so this pattern didn’t continue with the large number of Spanish-speaking Catholics who arrived here from the mid-twentieth century onward.  Local clergy here often had to learn Spanish to accommodate them, or priests from other Spanish-speaking areas of the world came here to serve them.

But now the problem has arisen in a different direction: the native, English-speaking Catholic population of the U.S. is failing to produce enough priests to serve itself, and generous priests from other countries now have to learn English as a second language, leave their families and homelands, and minister here.

I was talking with a group of local pastors a few months ago, and the experience we have at Our Lady of Grace is widespread: one native-born priest (me), and the other priest(s) coming from other cultures to serve in the U.S.  I admire the generosity and courage of such priests (I couldn’t imagine myself leaving home and learning another language in which to minister), but my point today isn’t about them: It’s about the problem in the U.S. church which is not producing enough priests to serve itself.

I’m not going to dive into the possible causes and remedies for this situation; I’m only pointing out why it’s the case that, increasingly, Catholics in the U.S. are going to be ministered to by priests from other cultures (and, often, whose first language is not English).  American Catholics simply have not developed enough young men into aspirants for this life, so there’s a dire shortage.  To cite just one striking statistic, around when I was ordained (1972; data from 1970) the average age of a priest in the U.S. was 35.  The most recent (2009) data put it now at 63.  (In contrast, the average of doctors is decreasing slightly.)  

Since it takes a decade or more to train a priest, even if the number of aspirants exploded today (which it shows no signs of doing) more and more Sunday Masses, Funeral Masses, wakes, and weddings over the coming years will have a foreign-born priest presiding.  (At least one diocese now has, for that matter, a foreign-born bishop.)  This is a novel situation for native-born Catholics and it will take some learning on everybody’s part.

But more to my point today, I wonder what it says about the health of the U.S. Catholic church that it isn’t producing enough native-born clergy to minister to itself.  If we look at the experience of other cultures, there seem to me to be worrying trends.  There’s widespread movement in Latin America away from Catholicism toward evangelical churches (and some signs of similar movement here among those groups). The lack of native clergy in South and Central America is likely, in my estimation, to play some role in that.  In contrast the experience of the Vietnamese exile community in the U.S. – who have Vietnamese clergy to minister to them – seems to be that it is thriving.

Ask yourself – and I say this fully recognizing the great gifts missionary clergy bring to the U.S.: If your children and grandchildren rarely experience ministry from a priest of their own culture, what is the result going to be for the Catholic Church in the coming years?  The Apostles had a problem like that, and they worked to resolve it. We’re in a similar boat.  Until next week, peace.