Cultural Identity and International Ministers: Case Study
Lukenotes, Summer 2017
Father Charles grew up in a large family in a small town in Nigeria. His parents were not wealthy, but had a deep faith. They took their eight children to Mass every Sunday and often during the week, and prayed the rosary together every evening.
They were very proud of their eldest son when he announced he was becoming a priest. After completing his theology studies, Fr. Charles was assigned to a parish close to his hometown. While he enjoyed his ministry, he jumped at the opportunity to work in the United States when his bishop entered an agreement with a U.S. bishop who did not have enough priests to meet the needs in his small, but growing diocese.
Fr. Charles was excited about his move. He was placed as a parochial vicar at a large parish. He worked to fit in and attended parish events, special celebrations, deanery meetings and other priest gatherings.
Then things began to change. About six months after he arrived, Fr. Charles no longer joined the pastor, Fr. Jim, for meals. He stopped going to the charismatic prayer group on Tuesday evenings and no longer showed up to help parishioners with the food pantry. He seemed moody and withdrawn and often was away from the parish a couple of times each week in addition to his day off.
Parishioners began to complain that Fr. Charles was not showing up. People experienced him as abrupt. Some of the women felt he was not respecting their opinions and suggested it was because they were women.
Fr. Charles just shrugged when Fr. Jim asked if everything was all right. One evening, Fr. Jim simply said, “Something is wrong. I can see it and I am worried about you. Let’s talk.”
Understanding the Challenges
Fr. Charles finally opened up. As the eldest son and because he was working in the U.S., he was responsible for helping support his family financially. It was a stretch to send money home with his small diocesan salary, but he had been managing. Now his father was ill and could not afford the surgery and medication he needed.
Feeling an obligation to help his father, Fr. Charles had found a chaplain position on his own at a home for retired veterans. He was going there on his day off and for Mass and visits a couple of other days every week, plus there was the occasional sacramental emergency. He was exhausted and worried about his father’s health. He also missed aspects of his home culture and the close-knit family he left behind.
The pastor did not realize the pressure Fr. Charles was feeling to support his family. He was worried about Father’s health, and how this stress could undermine his assignment and engagement with the parishioners.
While understanding Fr. Charles’ worries, Fr. Jim knew that the situation could not continue. Parishioners were beginning to question Fr. Charles and no longer were seeing him as a person, but as “the African priest.” Fr. Charles needed to be engaged with and acclimated to the parish.
Strategies and Lessons Learned
Fr. Jim was not sure how to move ahead. He contacted the vicar for clergy. Together they met with Fr. Charles and generated ideas to help support him, including connecting him with a priest from a similar region of Nigeria who had been in the U.S. longer.
Fr. Charles decided to share his concerns about his father’s health with the parish. The parishioners quickly rallied around him in prayer and even offered to hold a one-time fundraiser to help Father’s family address the financial emergency. They liked that family was so important in Father’s culture and asked to learn more about his home.
Fr. Jim and Fr. Charles also set aside time every couple of weeks to touch base about how the transition was going and how Fr. Charles was doing. As Fr. Charles felt the support around him grow, he was better able to acclimate to his new ministry.
The diocese used this experience as a learning opportunity. They were happy with Fr. Charles’ ministry and grateful he was willing to come to the U.S., but realized it would be beneficial to put more supports in place for international priests.
These included learning more about a priest’s home culture and his expectations, perspective and understanding of ministry before he arrives; identifying transition resources, such as acculturation programs; preparing a parish for its new priest; identifying support structures, such as a priest-mentor in the U.S. who is from the same home region, when possible; and scheduling regular meetings with the pastor to prevent problems from building.
This case study is not based on a particular individual. Crystal Taylor-Dietz, Psy.D., is director of Caritas Counseling Center of Saint Luke Institute. She recently presented a webinar on this topic and is a speaker at the April 2018 conference, “Intercultural Competencies for Human Formation.” Susan Gibbs is director of outreach for Saint Luke Institute and the editor of Lukenotes.