Fathers Without Borders Print
Written by Sherry   
Monday, 29 December 2008 08:21
A glimpse of our truly catholic, multi-cultural future:

The New York Times is running a fascinating series of articles on foreign priests working in the US. The introductory article, Fathers Without Borders" ran on Sunday and gave the lay of the land in the Diocese of Owensboro, Kentucky and in the nation as a whole.

"One of six diocesan priests now serving in the United States came from abroad, according to “International Priests in America,” a large study published in 2006. About 300 international priests arrive to work here each year. Even in American seminaries, about a third of those studying for the priesthood are foreign-born." Be sure and click on the graphic side-bars. They give a great sense of how much the "priest shortage" is a global matter and how much better off we are in the US than in many places like Brazil or the Philippines.

Just FYI, Adherents.com quotes a 1957 book that gives Catholic figures as of that year:

...Pope, Pius XII, wields spiritual authority--through 62 cardinals, 1,427 bishops, some 400,000 secular priests, 300,000 religious priests and lay brothers, and 970,000 sisters--over some 484 million souls served by 410,000 churches in the world. " The author seems to merge the category of religious priest and religious brother because he is quoted elsewhere as saying that the Catholic Church has 700,000 priests in 1957 - which seems tremendously exaggerated since the number of priests has stayed about 405,000 since the mid 90's.

Although we've yet to work in Owensboro, The NYT figures are not a surprise. We run into foreign-born - usually African or Vietnamese - priests everywhere and in the seminaries we've worked in. (See my post on our experience at St. Patrick's Menlo Park.)

Today's piece is a heart-warming tale of a missionary priest from Africa and his 4 years at largely rural, largely white St. Michael's parish in Kentucky.

" In Kenya, Father Oneko became the sole pastor for 12 satellite parishes in an 80-mile stretch. He served more than 3,000 people communion on a typical weekend and ran a girls high school.

It was a hardship post. His car, the only one in the vicinity, was used as a school bus, an ambulance and, if the local officers caught a thief, a police car — with Father Oneko the driver."

Fr. Oneko has adapted successfully to his new congregation's very different ways but his profoundly different experience of life has left him with little sympathy for American self-pity.

"He confessed that he had an easier time relating to white Americans than African-Americans because he did not understand why blacks carried such resentments toward the United States.

“Their ancestors are long gone,” he said. “They are bitter for I don’t know what.”

He has little tolerance for what he sees as unnecessary self-pity. When an unemployed Vietnam veteran told him he blamed his war experience for his poverty, Father Oneko said he told him: “I blame you, because military people have so many opportunities. You are getting some pension from the government, so you should not complain.

“There are some poor people, poorer than you, somewhere, in Africa, in Jamaica,” Father Oneko said. “But you, at least you have freedom. You have somewhere to sleep."

Fr. Oneko's experience of injustice and poverty is much more immediate:

"One morning in January, Father Oneko received a phone call from his family in Kenya, where a disputed presidential election had just set off a wave of intertribal anger and violence.

A mob had set fire to his parents’ house because they had given shelter to a family of a rival tribe the mob was chasing. Father Oneko’s 32-year-old brother, Vincent Oloo, arrived in time to help their elderly parents escape the burning house. But the mob turned on Father Oneko’s brother, shooting him dead. He left a wife and three children.

“My parents were just crying and crying,” Father Oneko said. “My father is crying and saying, ‘Now I’m losing all the children, who will bury me?’ ”

Father Oneko phoned his friend the Rev. John Thomas and then Mrs. Lake, his faithful volunteer administrator. She was stunned at the news, and for half an hour listened to and consoled her priest — a sudden role reversal. Father Oneko was troubled to hear his mother wailing on the phone and to know that he could not go to Kenya to perform the funeral. His parents insisted it was too dangerous for him to come."

His congregation of 300 - 400 clearly cherish him and responded magnificently.

"Mrs. Lake called three of the church’s Silver Angels, a club of elders. They phoned more church members, and in two hours 60 people had assembled at a special noon Mass in memory of Father Oneko’s brother.

At the end of the Mass, they lined up in the center aisle as if for communion, and Father Oneko stood at the front receiving their embraces one by one.

He was overwhelmed by the outpouring of sympathy. Children in the parish school in Hopkinsville made him cards; one showed his brother with a halo, in the clouds. The bishop and priests of the diocese e-mailed and phoned their condolences. St. Michael’s and the parish in Hopkinsville took up a special collection for his family that totaled $5,600.

“It seems the whole church is praying with me,” Father Oneko said a few days later, as he read through the children’s cards. “You feel like you’re not a foreigner, just a part of the family. It makes me know how much I am to them.