Saturday, January 24, 2004

Catholic churches throughout the area are relying on priests from other countries to fill the vacancies created by a large number of men leaving the priesthood.

The Archdiocese of Washington currently has 19 priests on loan from 10 countries, among them Brazil, China and France. The Diocese of Arlington has 13 priests on loan from 10 countries, including Cuba, Ireland and Nigeria.

The Diocese of Richmond has about two dozen priests on loan from at least four countries, although church officials could not provide an exact count last week.

Nationwide, there are twice as many priests dying or retiring as there are young men entering the seminary, according to Mary Gauther, spokeswoman for Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), which studies the Catholic Church.

“I would suspect that this area is not any different,” she said.

The Rev. Salvador Anonuevo came to the United States from his native Philippines to fill a vacancy in the Diocese of Richmond, which encompasses all of the southern part of Virginia and Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

“There are nine Catholic churches in Richmond with no head pastor,” said Father Anonuevo, who was assigned to St. Luke Catholic Church in Virginia Beach.

Father Anonuevo, who came to Virginia Beach three years ago, intended to stay only three years. But he was recently appointed head church pastor, so his service time was extended by another three years. He said he is now on loan for up to six years.

But church officials say they do not actively recruit priests from other countries.

“They are looking to come here,” said Anne Edwards, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Richmond.

Priests from other countries come to the United States because the standard of living is higher here than in other parts of the world, said Dean Hoge, sociology professor at Catholic University. He said the prospect for a priest in Kenya or Nigeria being assigned to a parish in the United States is desirable.

“It is ironic,” Mr. Hoge said, adding that traditionally men join the priesthood out of selfless desires and are eager to abandon worldly possessions. “This is a little embarrassing, but some motives are different.”

Opportunities to study at well-known seminaries such as Georgetown and Catholic universities also attract many foreign-born priests to the Washington area, who end up serving parishes during their stay, according to church officials.

Everyone agrees that foreign-born priests help break down the language barrier that exists in some parishes, particularly in the Washington metropolitan area, where the population is diverse. For example, 30 percent of the more than 500,000 Catholics in the Washington Archdiocese are Hispanic.

These priests are able to offer Mass in languages other than English.

“We do work with bishops and religious orders to arrange for a limited number of priests from other countries to come here to serve immigrant communities, when we have a language need,” said Susan Gibbs, communications director for the Archdiocese of Washington. “We do not recruit priests from other countries to serve the English-speaking community.”

In Fairfax and Arlington, two congregations — St. Paul Chung and Holy Martyrs of Vietnam — are led by foreign-born priests.

For the past four years, Father Yondsong Kim has offered Mass in Korean for his 5,000-member parish at St. Paul Chung in Fairfax. A group of Dominican priests from Vietnam celebrate Mass to those who attend Holy Martyrs in Arlington.

“It is almost like a student exchange, only on a priest level,” said Father Robert Avella, the bishop’s diocesan delegate for clergy in the Diocese of Arlington, which covers all Catholic parishes in Northern Virginia.

However, some are concerned that parishes in the United States are taking away priests from congregations in other countries, a practice known among church officials as “U.S. church-poaching.”

“It is ironic given the [low] number of priests in other areas,” said Miss Gauther, adding there is a shortage of priests throughout the world.

Compared with other countries, “we are not a priest-poor nation,” Mr. Hoge said.

Still, the United States has seen a 14 percent decline in the number of priests the church has ordained since 1975. Catholic churches nationwide only have 30 percent to 40 percent of the total priests needed to serve in the dioceses, Mr. Hoge said.

Last year, the Washington Archdiocese, which includes parishes in the District and in Montgomery, Prince George’s, Calvert, St. Mary’s and Charles counties in Maryland, reported it had 202 active priests serving in parishes, while five were ordained. Arlington had 129 priests and four ordained. Richmond had 116 priests, but had no new priests ordained, according to statistics compiled by CARA.

Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said there were 994 priests ordained in the United States in 1965, but only 441 were ordained last year.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, who moved to the District in 2001, made recruitment of priests a top priority for the Washington Archdiocese.

“The church only recently became aggressive in recruitment,” Miss Walsh said.

Miss Walsh attributes the decline in new recruits to low attendance in Catholic school and at Mass. She also believes that young Catholic boys now are seldom encouraged to become priests.

The Catholic Church’s rule that requires priests to remain celibate also is seen as a major discouragement for men looking to join the priesthood, Mr. Hoge said.

The impact of the recent onslaught of sex-abuse cases involving priests and minors on recruitment has yet to be determined.

Nevertheless, local parishes are pleased that foreign-born priests are willing to fill the vacancies and serve the immigrant population. “We are glad to have them,” Mr. Hoge said.

For Father Anonuevo, it makes little difference whether he serves congregations in the United States or in the Philippines.

“I am not here as a Filipino serving America,” he said. “I am here as a Catholic priest serving a Christian community.”

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