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Posted October 22, 2013

The Gifts International Priest Bring

Taken from an interview by David Gibson with Fr. Alan Deck, S.J.
on International Priests

Responding to a question about international priests from Latin American cultures serving in the U.S., you stressed the gifts they bring to this culture, including in many cases their youth and vitality. You spoke of these international priests as a "very promising group of leaders."

At another point you suggested that awareness has grown in recent years of the need to approach international priests in "a way that is mutual" and that encompasses an adaptation to the gifts they bring to us. Thus, you indicated, concerns about international priests should involve not only what is given to them but what is received from them.

How important is it --- and why is it important --- that the gifts of international priests bring to our culture gain recognition from church leaders and the people in the pews?

Father Deck: A constructive interaction among priests with other priests, and among priests and the communities they serve requires a healthy exchange between them all, what Pope Benedict XVI refers to as "giving and receiving."

Like the Hispanic people themselves, Hispanic priests come with their distinctive cultures and gifts. Will they be diminished or suffocated? Or will they flourish and find a way to contribute to the emerging new identities – American and Catholic – that are being forged anew today?

Just as in the past, the church is one of the main agents of this process of ecclesial and national integration. That is way the bishops are prioritizing recognition of cultural diversity and stressing intercultural competence for all leaders.

A Comprehensive Approach

Matters related to international priests serving in the U.S. are "terribly complex" and need to be approached in a more "comprehensive way," you said. Responding to these needs may reach beyond the capability of a single diocese, you suggested.

You said that if you were given the opportunity to make only one recommendation to church leaders regarding international priests, your recommendation for the short term would be to develop a more comprehensive approach to the sweep of issues these priests face, from immigration regulations to their priestly life to language deficiencies, etc.

Please explain or define what you mean by a "comprehensive" approach to international priests and the complexity of all this.

When considering international priest from a short-term perspective, the need to respond in a more comprehensive way to the many challenges involved is a top priority in Father Deck's view.

In assessing matters from a long-term perspective, however, he cited a need to look to the second-generation children of immigrants and to cultivate local leadership in the church. In the long term, he said, international priests should be needed less.

"We're in a period when a church is weak if it isn't producing its own vigorous leadership --- inspiring vocations and motivating members to develop as leaders, he said. Taking the Risk of Communicating With "Others."

Intercultural competence within the church is a key and ongoing concern for Father Deck. To succeed at "communicating effectively" in the context of today's changing presbyterate and changing congregation, "international competence" now needs to characterize church life and ministry in the United States, he proposed.

"International competence" encompasses "a set of cognitive, affective and behavioral skills and characteristics that support "effective and appropriate interaction in a variety of cultural contexts," he said, by way of defining the term.

In an age of great diversity, the church in the United States is not in a position to take a national-church approach to its many cultural groups, Fr. Deck emphasized. "Now we have the shared parish," a parish in which two or more language groups are present, he pointed out.

As a result of the "historic cycle" U.S. parishes have experienced in recent times, he said that we now are "talking about people from different continents, different races, and we're talking about priests" from these greatly diverse backgrounds too --- not just priests arriving from Europe.

Of course, most people "are born and raised in one cultural context," and people tend to like "familiarity," Father Deck observed. He noted that according to some scholarship, the standard human response to diversity is negative. However, "to be effective today, we have to do something about this," he said.

Thus, "we have to take the risk of entering into relationships with others," he said.

Entering into relationships with people from different cultural backgrounds involves experiencing other ways of conceiving life, of doing things, of thinking, other ways of feeling "that may not be obvious to us," said Father Deck.

The Catholic tradition has "something to offer" to this entire process through its "universal thrust that goes beyond the confines of any one nation, culture."

He insisted that encounters with others in America's contemporary parishes should "proceed in a way that's human, respectful – and consistent with our theology, consistent with what the church teaches" about intercultural relations, about the process of inculturation of the faith and about God's offer of salvation to all.

It will not be a matter "just of having ‘those people' learn about us. we need to learn about them," Fr. Deck said.

What should we learn about international priest? "We have to learn their way of being Catholic," Fr. Deck responded. At this point he called attention to the fact that many international priests represent significant cultural groups of Catholic people today, people in the pews who often relate very well to them.

Father Deck found it "rather obvious" that increased attention "simply has to be given to these men before the come, when they come." In addition he said, preparation for an international priest's arrival ought to be provided not only to local priests, but to parish congregations themselves.

Thought also should be given to how international priests "are being received --- even whether certain basic requirements of hospitality are truly being met," Fr. Deck commented. He cautioned that international priests "frequently experience themselves being on the margin."

Latin American Priests in the United States

When I asked him to talk about Latin American priests arriving to serve the church in the United States, Fr. Deck focused on the gifts they bring and their leadership potential. "But I don't know to what extent we're taking advantage of this," he said.

Latin American priests are "bringing youth, they're bringing vitality, they're bringing creativity" to the church in this country, he said. In his judgment, however, "a more proactive support system" is needed so that these priests "can get a foothold in the culture, in the local church, and begin to flourish."

Fr. Deck thinks priests from Latin America are "bringing certain gifts that the church in Latin America has developed around a style of Catholicism that's pertinent to many Catholics" in the United States at this time, "given the Hispanic presence."

For example, these priests arrive from "cultures that are still somewhat more traditional" and "a world where popular devotion is more integral to the way of practicing the faith than in the United States.

Moreover, Fr. Deck said it is very likely that their background supports "a deep concern for the social reality of the people --- for the need of the immigrant, the struggle of socio-economic poverty and all kinds of social needs."

Fr. Deck ended by saying the complexity of the issues facing the reception of international priests includes:

--- How to properly vet or screen these men before they leave their countries.

--- How to orientate both the international priests AND the communities (parishes, dioceses, presbyterates) receiving them. The orientation has several distinct elements, e.g., a cross-cultural piece, historical, theological, pastoral, legal, etc.

--- Safeguarding of children and minors issues.

--- Priestly morale and spirituality issues.

--- Hospitality.

--- Issues of integration (not assimilations) of clergy into the local church and presbyterate.

--- Issues of interculturality, e.g., diversity among Hispanics themselves, English-speaking Filipino and Indian priests dealing with huge Spanish-speaking congregations. They learn Spanish in the other major official language of the U.S. Catholic Church here, to their surprise. How to cope.

--- Human development and psychological issues of a cross-cultural nature, for instance, distinctive attitudes affecting certain matters like celibacy, alcoholism, pornography, addictions, etc., that affect behaviors of international priests as well as native priests, how to recognize, assess and treat them.