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Josephites prepare Nigerian priests to serve in the US.

As Josephite Fr. Kenneth Ugwu sat in his office one early September day, a parishioner walked in with an odd request: She said she wanted to apologize.

The woman caught the pastor off-guard. He had arrived only a month before at Most Pure Heart of Mary Church in Mobile, Ala.--the century-old, historically African-American parish and a focal point of the civil rights movement--and didn't recognize her, much less recall an incident requiring her contrition.

She acknowledged there was no specific instance, but instead a predetermined decision well before Ugwu's installation that she would not accept him--because he was an African priest. But her concerns of culture and background clashes melted as she got to know him.

"She wanted to say she was sorry and, indeed, this is what they needed at the parish at this time," Ugwu recalled, saying such moments reaffirm the need for patience in missionary work in a new country

"That's when, for me, I begin to know that, yes, I am becoming one of them. Which is want I want to be, and I try to be," he told NCR.

Ugwu, 34, is among nearly two dozen Nigerian Josephite priests serving in U.S. parishes. The Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart has long served the Catholic African-American community Following the American Civil War, the order formed with the sole purpose of ministering to recently freed African-Americans, and has evolved to serve later generations. Today, the society runs 36 parishes and two schools in seven states, primarily in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

The St. Joseph House of Formation in Iperu-Remo, Nigeria, continues that ministry by serving as a pipeline for future vocations at a time when a declining number of priests has led the society to withdraw from several parishes. An invitation in the late 1990s from a longtime partner, the Nigerian-based Missionary Society of St. Paul, ignited the program. With vocations blossoming in its faith-oriented culture celebrating calls to religious life, the West African nation appeared an ideal locale.

"It's unbelievable. All of their seminaries are full," said Josephite Fr. William Norvel, an American who served as the formation house's first director. Norvel is now superior general of the Baltimore-based order.

In 1999, the Josephite house opened in Iperu-Remo. Each year, it selects about 10 young men, ranging from age 19 to 27, from a pool as deep as 70 applicants. Each must have completed high school, received the sacraments of initiation and provide three letters of recommendation. For many, the appeal of becoming a Josephite stemmed from the Irish missioners who evangelized in Nigeria.

"They have been gifted with the faith and they want to be ambassadors to other communities, to bring that faith to them," Norvel said, adding that their enthusiasm grows "once they realize that they are serving the African-Americans, the ancestors of people who have been sent from the shores of West Africa to the United States."

That rang true for Ugwu, who joined the Josephites over two other missionary orders because he "was attracted to the mission to the people whom I see as my people in diaspora."

Last year; Josephite Fr. Henry Davis took over as formation director, and had eight men at the house, whom he called "the eight beatitudes." The American priest expects 12 new members once he returns to the house in October.

"I'm not going to name them apostles yet. I'm just going to call them the 12 disciples and just see how it goes," Davis said.

The one-year formation process awaiting them is rigorous and structured. A typical day begins with early morning prayer, meditation and Eucharist, followed by several hours of classes: the catechism and the Bible, writing and speech, and church and African-American history Weekends offer opportunities to catechize and minister with local communities or even venture into nearby Lagos, where parishes in Nigeria's most populous city hold as many as seven liturgies each weekend.

Through it all, the goal is for the men to understand themselves, their relationship with God, and their relationship with their community as they discern both a call to the priesthood and to the missionary life.

"We have to be with them to make sure we get the right character, the right person, the person who is open to coming to America," Davis said. "Because they want to be a priest, but sometimes they may have the wrong reason."

Once the year ends, another nine years await those who choose to become Josephites, beginning with four years of philosophy at a Nigerian Dominican institute. Afterward, they spend five years in the U.S., primarily in graduate studies in theology and divinity before being ordained Josephite priests.

So far, the Josephites have ordained 18 Nigerians, including seven in June--representing the order's entire ordination class. All Josephites serve four-year terms at a parish, but Norvel said most of the Nigerian priests begin as parish administrators, "to see if they were able to adjust to the African-American spirituality and be able to go in there and understand it, and to enhance it and bring it into liturgy rather than impose their Nigerian spirituality upon the people."

The formation program places special emphasis on understanding African-American history and its influence on the people's spirituality Through the trials of slavery Jim Crow laws and racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, African Americans came to know Jesus as a liberator, Norvel said. That image differs from the spirituality common to Nigeria, where God is the center of one's life, family and struggles.

Recognizing those differences, and appreciating how past experiences have chiseled them, is an important step for the Nigerian missionaries, one that often begins with an attentive ear.

"Save yourself a whole lot of stress: Listen to the people," Davis advises the new priests, as well as reminding them that they became priests to serve, not to be served. That idea can take a while to resonate, as it is sometimes a contrast from Nigerian culture, which holds priests in great esteen. Davis recalled that during his first days at the formation house a seminarian came and quickly snatched his vestments and Bible from him. The reason? Priests in Nigeria don't carry their own things.

"Some of the mentalities over there [are], 'Well, I'm a priest you have to serve me.' Oh no no no no, it doesn't go that way, definitely not in America," Davis said.

"You have to know the people to whom you're sent, you have to love the people, and you have to show that love by the way you [selflessly] minister to them," Norvel said.

Other learning curves include a language barrier and working with lay staff, particularly women. In Nigeria, the abundance of priests means they often fill roles in parishes and chanceries commonly filled by laypeople in the U.S.; collaborating with them can at times challenge the Nigerian priests.

For Ugwu, that hasn't been the case: He says he worked with many lay volunteers back home. Instead, his challenge has been nurturing greater parish involvement, specifically in sustaining the parish school--Mobile's last primarily black Catholic school.

"I've been able to get some support, but it's not nearly enough for sure," he said.

It is through selfless ministry and the manner they live the faith, Norvel said, that the Nigerians can revitalize faith in their parish communities.

"Once the people see that you're there to serve them and to bring the faith to them, they will respond," he said.

Caption: --Courtesy of the Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart

Caption: --CARA

Caption: Josephite Superior General Fr. William Norvel, center, and Fr. Henry Davis, second from right, pose with seminarians of the St. Joseph House of Formation in Nigeria.


Is the priesthood in America returning to its melting pot roots?

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., international priests currently constitute 16 percent of all priests in the U.S. In 1999, they represented 8 percent of U.S. priests.

When looking at new ordinations, the percentage nearly doubles. Foreign-born ordinands have averaged approximately 30 percent for the last decade, according to CARA's annual ordination class survey. The number peaked in 2003 (38 percent), after beginning at 22 percent in 1999, the first year of available comparable data. While diocesan vocations have almost mirrored the overall percentage, the number of foreign-born priests to religious orders has fluctuated, representing more than half of ordinands in 2011.

As for the 2013 ordination class, 31 percent of the 366 responding ordinands (out of a potential 497) came from outside the U.S. Of the 35 different countries they represented, the majority came from Mexico (5 percent), followed by Vietnam and Colombia (3 percent each), and Nigeria, Poland and the Philippines (2 percent each). On average, they arrived in the U.S. at age 23. The class of 2013 showed a slight increase from the previous year (up from 29 percent), but saw a drop in Vietnamese ordinands, the largest nationality of the 2012 class (5 percent).

At a time when almost one in five U.S. parishes lacks a resident pastor, more and more dioceses have looked at alternative solutions to parish leadership, including foreign priests.

"It's certainly not universal, but in some places they are looking overseas to see if there are international priests that can come in and sort of bridge the gap," Mary Gautier, a senior research associate at CARA, told NCR.

Among international priests currently in ministry, the greatest number come from India, Gautier said, followed by Ireland. However, the Irish priests largely represent those who remain from arrivals during the 1970s and '80s. Other countries with large U.S. presences include the Philippines, Nigeria, Mexico, Poland, Vietnam and Colombia.

Though priests from these countries choose to become missionaries, it doesn't necessarily mean their homelands have avoided the priest shortage.

"They're experiencing a lot of new vocations, they are experiencing very full seminaries, but realistically, if you look at Catholics per priest around the world, the U.S. looks far better than any other country," Gautier said, adding that only Europe has a greater Catholics-to-priest ratio.

Rather, the numbers reflect a different understanding about one's relationship to a parish. Though Americans have come to expect a convenient, nearby parish and flexible Mass schedule, "that's just not the case in the rest of the world," Gautier said.

Today's reliance on international priests reflects to a degree the Catholic church's early days in America, but a difference exists in how they have arrived. Simply put, foreign-born priests now come to a parish community, not along with one.

"In the early parts of the [20th] century, when there were large numbers of non-U.S.-born priests, those priests tended to come with their immigrant populations," Gautier said.

The new dynamic means that international priests often face a new culture and language when they arrive at their U.S. parish, and the clash can lead to friction with parishioners.

"It's very challenging relative to the experience of several generations ago with those immigrant priests," Gautier said.

CARA has recently conducted focus groups with international priests and their parishioners to better understand the challenges that exist. The feedback from those sessions will be included in a book examining international priests' ministry in the U.S., scheduled for publication in early 2014.

--Brian Roewe
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Title Annotation:RELIGIOUS LIFE
Author:Roewe, Brian
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:6NIGR
Date:Sep 27, 2013
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