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Foreign undesirables.

Over the last couple of decades, parishes and dioceses all across the country have embarked on various navel-gazing, brain-storming, and workshopping exercises to deal with the ubiquitous "priest shortage." Invariably you hear that the laity must "get more involved" (I'm not sure how, since in some parishes we're doing everything except consecrating hosts.)

Another suggestion that comes up repeatedly is "more foreign-born priests, please." At a few meetings I've gone to, or heard about, some clergy and laity have been irritated by this suggestion. As one cleric said: "We have to grow our own." (Keep in mind that I've lived in many parishes and several dioceses--so I'm not making veiled hints about individuals: I'm talking attitude.)

Of course we know that "importing" priests is a stop-gap measure, not a permanent solution. I would love to "grow a priest," but with seven daughters ... well, you see my dilemma. Some powers that be, however, seem to think that bringing in foreign priests will only lull us into a false sense of security, and more long years of complacency.

Yet other folks don't want a foreign-born priest in their parish because they can't understand his speech, may not like his peculiar tastes or mannerisms, or might not agree with his theology and/or politics. In the real world, this might be called something ugly like racism, or just plain rudeness, but in the Church it's called "cultural incompatibility."

I've heard it all: it's too cold for African priests, the food is too bland for East Indian priests, the speed limits are too low for Polish priests, yadda yadda yadda. Maybe the worst culture shock for these guys is hailing from a background where the family, the Catholic faith, and the priesthood are revered, and arriving in a parish where there's no need for regular Mass attendance, Church authority, or even the priesthood.

(Incidentally, if we can't understand Father's accent, maybe there's an argument to revive the Latin mass ... but I digress.)

I once heard a (Canadian) priest suggest that perhaps we could not really trust the motives of priests from less economically-developed countries. They might be faking their vocations just so they could "get into Canada" to enjoy a better standard of living. I don't know whether to laugh or cry at such a suggestion; it is as bizarre as it is insulting.

If a Canadian "standard of living" includes leaving behind one's country, mother tongue, milder climate, family, and friends, to go to a parish where some will complain about your accent, and your inability to understand (read: approve of) North American culture, then I'm sure some of our immigrant priests can take it or leave it. Can a car and a DVD player really compensate for missing your homeland? Has it occurred to anyone that these priests might have a greater desire to convert us from our materialism than to come and wallow in it?

Historically, how would our Catholic settlements have been established if the local bishops had insisted on "growing their own" priests, instead of sending for missionaries from Germany, France, etc.? "That was different," one woman insisted to me. "Then, they were serving their own ethnic group." Well, hello, it's the twenty-first century. We're a multicultural society. There is no such thing as "keeping to your own" any more. If a priest is willing to leave his home country to serve Catholics halfway around the globe, the least we can do is welcome him with open arms and try to make the transition as smooth as possible.

With its sagging birth rate, Western society relies on immigration to keep the population afloat; why should the Church, with its sagging rate of ordinations, be any different? Need we point out that the problem of "growing our own" priests is exacerbated by the rampant use of contraception among Catholics, and even more tragically, few bishops have the courage to publicly say so? (But that's fodder for another column).

Why do we speak of brotherhood and the "global village" when it comes to social justice, but the topic of foreign priests oversteps the bounds of polite Catholic conversation? I want Christ himself: I don't care whether the consecrated hands that deliver Him to me are black, white, red or yellow--as long as they are obedient to the Holy Father. Nothing is more "foreign" to me than national-church agendas and disobedience to the Magisterium. In this regard, there are more Canadian-born "foreigners" among us than those from other countries.

Well, that's my rant for the month--now I'd better go telephone our new Polish priest and invite him to dinner.

Mariette Ulrich has an Honours B.A. in English Literature, with a special interest in 19th century novels and film adaptations thereof. She writes from Scott, SK.
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Title Annotation:COLUMNIST
Author:Ulrich, Mariette
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:May 1, 2006
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