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Recruits To Pulpit Reflect Catholic Parishes' Growing Diversity…Spanish-Speaking Catholic Priests Are Sought

Church's New Faces Recent Recruits To Pulpit Reflect Catholic Parishes' Growing Diversity


June 9, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Atlanta Journal - Constitution. All rights reserved. 

John-Paul Ezeonyido kissed his stole before draping it over his ivory and gold-trimmed vestment. The robe was a gift from his mother, who was waiting upstairs --- along with hundreds of other well-wishers --- in the Cathedral of Christ the King on Peachtree Street.

Before the afternoon was over, Ezeonyido realized a longtime dream --- to become a priest in the Catholic Church. He also joined the growing ranks of priests --- and church members --- who are transforming the Catholic Church into a racially and culturally diverse body.

Within weeks of his June ordination ceremony, Ezeonyido began work at his assigned parish, Holy Cross Catholic Church in Atlanta. Another newly ordained Nigerian priest --- the Rev. John Ugobeze --- soon joined Ezeonyido at the church.

Becoming a priest was a goal the 32-year-old Ezeonyido has nurtured since he was a young boy growing up in the largely Catholic Igbo-Ukwu, in the southeastern part of Nigeria.

The ties to his homeland were clear throughout the ceremony. His robe was sewn by nuns in Nigeria. Emeka C. Ezeoke, a student at Georgia Tech and friend from Nigeria, did a reading in his native language of Igbo. Scores of women were clad in brightly colored Nigerian traditional dress.

"The archdiocese [in Atlanta] sees an increase in the diversity of the congregation, and it's willing to bring in priests from other countries," said Ezeonyido, who was an altar boy growing up in Nigeria and is the first priest in his family. "One of the major duties of a priest is to preach, and you can't do that if you don't know the language."

Keeping up with changes

The Catholic Church, like many institutions in the United States, finds itself responding to an increasingly diverse society as more immigrants and refugees move to this country. That diversity is reflected in the congregations as well as in the priesthood.

The Rev. Brian Higgins, director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, said such changes can be expected.

"Just as the United States continues to change, so does the church, as far as the faces you see in the pulpit," he said. "The church is universal, and it tries to reach out to all of its members. How well are we doing? As well as how many people are answering the call."

Higgins said the archdiocese hopes to have more vocational information available in Spanish. It also wants to target African-Americans, Africans and Asians within the Catholic Church to encourage them to consider church leadership roles.

The archdiocese does not keep track of priests based on ethnicity, race or nationality --- just religious order. But change has clearly come.

Priests ordained this year are younger, more educated and more diverse than the average religious order and diocesan priests, according to a recently released survey by the Life Cycle Institute of the Catholic University of America.

Fourteen percent of the class is Latino, a 2-point increase compared with 1998. The number of foreign-born priests rose to 28 percent from 24 percent in 1998. Five percent were born in Vietnam, and 6 percent were born in Mexico.

The increase in the number of priests of color is no accident. It's in direct response to a changing congregation and the general "browning of America."

Higgins, who was ordained in 1999, said his class of seminarians were "mostly Anglos." Recent classes have seminarians from the Philippines, Costa Rica, Mexico, Colombia and Cameroon.

Latino majority soon?

Consider that Latinos will constitute the majority of worshippers in the Catholic Church in this country within the next few years and currently account for 71 percent of the growth in the last four decades, according to a study by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops released last spring.

Among the study's findings: Between 67 percent and 71 percent of the 30 million Latinos in the United States are Catholic. That number accounts for roughly 30 percent to 38 percent of all Catholics in the country.

The study stated that 40 percent of the 150 dioceses that were surveyed publish newspapers with information in Spanish or produce a weekly or daily radio program in Spanish.

Forty-four dioceses have created new or updated offices for Latino ministry, and budgets for Latino ministry have increased in more than 80 percent of the dioceses.

The increased diversity can be seen many places, including at Nazareth House in southwest Atlanta. Nazareth House is a residence for men becoming priests. Recently, more than a dozen seminarians prepared for a meal of pizza and soda after a Mass.

The assembled group was a mini-United Nations, representing several countries and ethnic groups.

One seminarian was Javier Manzarez from Ixtapa in Guerrero state, Mexico, who has already spent several years in the seminary.

"I've been very blessed in my life," said Manzarez, who comes from a solidly Catholic family. An uncle is a priest in Mexico, and a cousin and aunts are nuns.

Manzarez underscored the importance of having more Latinos in the vocations.

"Everybody feels more comfortable with a priest who can speak the language," he said.

Latinos aren't the only ethnic group on the rise. In metro Atlanta, Masses are being held in several languages. There's Portuguese in Sandy Springs for the growing Brazilian population. Igbo Mass is held once a month at St. Anthony's Catholic Church in the West End. Vietnamese is spoken at Our Lady of Vietnam Catholic Church in Riverdale, and Korean Masses are held at Korean Martyrs Catholic Church in Norcross.

The church's response to the changing congregation has precedent. Historically, the Catholic Church in the United States has aggressively sought priests with cultural and language links to parishioners. The early U.S. church was built on immigrants, but for most of those early years, they were of European ancestry --- Irish, Polish and Italian. Only within the last 10 to 20 years has the church experienced its most dramatic change as more immigrants from Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia have started to call the United States home.

Growing fast in Africa

The United States has started to look outside its borders, too.

In 2001, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a call for solidarity with Africa, citing Christianity's and the Catholic Church's long histories in Africa.

"Today, the Catholic Church and other Christian ecclesial communities in Africa are among the fastest growing in the world," according to a statement released at that time.

Among the more than 800 million people living on the continent, the statement read, more than 350 million are Christians, and more than 116 million are Catholic. Nearly 17 percent of all health systems in sub-Saharan Africa are ministries of the Catholic Church, and the church has become more active in refugee relief services, both in Africa and the United States.

That has helped bring Catholics from other countries into the fold.

Asians are part of the change, too.

In Riverdale, Mass is led by the Rev. Francis Pham Van Phuong, who moved to Atlanta from Connecticut, but was born in Ninh Binh in northern Vietnam.

Phuong said the church has about 600 families, up from 400 in 1997, and has four weekend Masses in Vietnamese. He says the Vietnamese services vary little from the typical Mass, except for language and musical selections played and sung in a traditional Vietnamese manner.

"The problem is that many of them cannot fluently speak English, so if they go to a church in English, they will not understand," he said. "If they have a priest who is from their country, who knows their language and customs and background, then maybe we guide them more."

It's much the same in other parts of the Southeast.

The Diocese of Raleigh, which covers 54 counties in North Carolina, has six priests from Latin American countries. Of the 11 seminarians scheduled to return to the diocese this fall, five are Latino. Additionally, the diocese has 94 parishes and mission churches, 60 of which have weekly Spanish Masses.

'An incredible transformation'

Vicar General Monsignor Michael Shugrue said the growth of the Latino community in the Raleigh area was such that the church felt compelled to reach Latinos. In the latest census figures, nearly 200,000 Latinos live in the diocese.

In previous years, many of the area's Latinos came in as migrant farmworkers or to work in the textile or poultry industries. Later, as in other parts of the Southeast, Latinos from outside the United States and from other states became permanent residents.

"The vast majority are settled," Shugrue said. "They're here for good. They have become regular members of the parishes."

At first, the efforts focused on language. Some priests learned Spanish. Eventually, the efforts involved recruiting Latino priests who were native Spanish speakers.

Now, it's evolved to the point there is Latino leadership development on the local parish level.

"We are finding an incredible transformation before our very eyes," Shugrue said. "People in our parishes are increasingly Spanish-speaking. They're having families and sending them to school. It's the changing reality of our parish population."

The Rev. Dan Oschwald, assistant vocations director in the Raleigh diocese, said what is happening now is no different from when European immigrants first landed on U.S. shores.

Church Hits Language Barrier; Spanish-Speaking Catholic Priests Are Sought For A Burgeoning Community

By Gaiutra Bahadur and Maria Panaritis

Inquirer Staff Writers

September 25, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved. 

The Salvadoran worshipers at St. Lawrence Roman Catholic Church lost their Spanish-speaking priest after just five months.

The Rev. Lou Rojas didn't leave the Lindenwold parish in June because he wanted to. He had to.

Rojas had been doing double duty at parishes 20 miles apart. And the other, in an Atlantic County town swollen with migrant farmworkers, needed him more.

So the Camden Diocese has rotated a lineup of Spanish-speaking priests into St. Lawrence rather than allow yet another growing Latino community to go unserved.

This revolving door of priests is a stopgap measure the U.S. Catholic Church is using to cope with a reality that could imperil its growth: There are not enough Spanish-speaking priests to serve the country's largest minority.

The few priests called into action hopscotch from altar to altar in new Latino enclaves miles apart. And immigrants in suburban outposts drive dozens of miles - or abandon the church that has come to depend on them for its growth.

"This is a pastoral emergency," said Elisa Montalvo, head of the National Catholic Association of Diocesan Directors for Hispanic Ministry. "This is the one ministry we cannot afford to neglect. We must reach out to them to make sure that the U.S. Catholic Church survives."

The church owes 71 percent of its growth in the last 40 years to Latinos from fiercely Catholic countries. During the 1990s alone, 13 million arrived.

Today, two in five U.S. Catholics are Latino. Still, a dearth of Spanish-speaking priests, coupled with budget cuts in a weak economy, has made it hard for the church to keep Latinos in its fold.

The church has closed some Latino outreach offices and slashed staff. In a July letter to the nation's bishops, ministry directors said such cutbacks contradict their strategy. The topic was a priority when directors met this week in Minneapolis.

"We just want to make sure the resources don't continue to shrink for a community that is growing," Montalvo said.

Camden Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, a leader on migration issues, called outreach to Latinos "one of the major challenges facing the church today."

It is a familiar one, but with new complications.

In the early 1900s, European migrants built churches, anchored them with priests from their homelands, and held Mass in their native tongues. But after World War II, when Latinos began arriving, the church was phasing out ethnic parishes.

It was assumed that Latinos would assimilate. But instead they have shuttled back and forth between countries, clinging to native tongues and traditions.

Their destinations in the United States also break with the past. Some have chosen traditional Latino hubs: North Philadelphia, Camden, Bristol Borough, Kennett Square - places already primed by large numbers of Puerto Ricans.

But today's suburban frontiers - Doylestown, Phoenixville, the Jersey Shore - now are dotted with dishwashers, landscapers and construction workers from Mexico, Guatemala and Ecuador.

Many, such as Jose-Luis Cardenas, are commuter churchgoers. The Mexican construction worker from Doylestown drives 30 minutes to a Hatboro church with his housemates every Saturday.

"It would be nice to have something closer," said Cardenas, 27. "We have a lot of friends who can't come here because it's far."

Their numbers are too large to ignore but too small for dioceses to create a costly full-service Spanish-language ministry at their nearest church.

"We've had such an influx that it's really caught us quite unprepared," said the Rev. John F. Myers, Bucks County coordinator of Hispanic Ministry for the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

There is one priest for every 1,200 Catholics in America, but only one Latino priest for every 10,000 Latino Catholics, according to an association of priests.

In the Camden Diocese, there is one Spanish-speaking priest for every 3,636 Latino Catholics; there is one for every 5,540 in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

Twenty-one parishes in South Jersey and 34 in Southeastern Pennsylvania have at least one Spanish Mass.

This year alone, the Philadelphia Archdiocese added three in the suburbs, with priests who show up once a week, say Mass, hear confession, and go home.

"Trying to get priests to work in those parishes, it's very hard," said Anna Vega, head of Philadelphia's Office for Latino Catholics. "We don't like to just begin a Mass; people like to have something that is a little more stable."

The Rev. Juan Martin Ochoa, one of five priests who came from Rome to help the Camden Diocese this summer, agrees.

Day in and day out, he walked up to Gloucester County vegetable farmers and asked to say Mass. When granted the OK, he would pull out a guitar and fold-up table from his trunk.

But Ochoa felt more should be done. He would have preferred a more permanent sanctuary.

"There is much loneliness inside of them," he said. "It is their distance and their families. It is their work; they need someone to tell them they can do it."

Beyond that, immigrants have practical needs that go unmet without full ministry.

Historically Latino Catholic communities - such as Mision Santa Maria, begun in 1991 amid Chester County's mushroom farms - offer English classes, job help and family counseling.

But such ministries are missing in the new immigrant enclaves of, say, Bucks County, where two priests serve about 8,000 Latinos at four churches.

"It's like being a general, but there isn't a soldier in the platoon," said Myers, referring to his role as the county's Latino ministry coordinator.

He would love to add a Mass for new Latinos in Doylestown. But Myers is reluctant to lobby for a Spanish-speaking priest in so small an enclave.

Yet Latinos are an important target audience - so much so that the Camden bishop himself travels rural roads in full regalia to minister in fields worked by the 10,000 migrants who swell the diocese each summer.

DiMarzio recently said a Spanish Mass at DuBois Farm near Swedesboro, even though nearby St. Joseph's holds one every Sunday. The bishop was there to deliver a pitch.

"We want to be close to you," he told dozens on the Gloucester County farm.

DiMarzio stood below a canopy near the concrete hall where farmhands eat, sleep and live - and where candles decorated with images of the Virgin of Guadalupe burn on a wooden shelf. Nearby were rows of green bell peppers that worshipers pick and pile into flatbed trucks for $5.15 an hour.

Santiago Morales, one of those pickers, knelt at the bishop's feet at the end of Mass.

"Thank you," he said, placing his hand in DiMarzio's. "I liked the service."

Other churches are battling for that hand.

There was no Spanish Mass four years ago in Bensalem, Bucks County, until an Episcopal church down the road from Our Lady of Fatima posted a sign announcing a new Mass in Spanish.

"Someone took a picture and sent it to the archdiocese," said Myers, and leaders mobilized. "They called several of us in and they said, 'Would you be able to take a turn at Fatima just to see how it's going?' "

Pentecostal Christians, especially, compete. Their pastors, such as the Rev. Rafael Calderon of the Dominican Republic, have deep roots in Latino communities.

Calderon leads fiery worship services at Spanish Pentecostal Church in Camden, where 17 Latin American flags hang above a choir with a conga drum - and hundreds of former Catholics such as Edelmira Martinez.

The Mexican woman lives a mile from St. Lawrence. But by the time the Lindenwold church started its Spanish Mass in January, she had already defected from the U.S. Catholic Church.

"I felt nothing. I felt empty," she said. She prefers the revival-style Masses back home. "In Mexico, it was different."

Catholic leaders are attempting to bridge this cultural gap.

Priests at St. Patrick's in Norristown, home to a huge new Mexican community, perform a coming-of-age tradition for 15-year-old girls known as quinceanera.

The church also installed a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, a figure of enormous importance to Mexican Catholics.

In May, the Philadelphia Archdiocese began publishing a page of its weekly newspaper in Spanish. And Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua delivered his first Easter address in Spanish this spring.

The archdiocese also airs a Sunday morning radio program - La Voz de Dios, or The Voice of God - in Spanish.

Priest ranks also are growing. The newly ordained from Philadelphia are studying Spanish in greater numbers each year at an adopted mission in Puerto Rico. Camden will soon embark on a similar exchange program in Costa Rica. Both also have created evangelical schools for Spanish-speaking deacons and Eucharistic ministers.

As such strategies take root, some immigrants are grateful for even makeshift efforts.

Salvadoran carpenter Jose Yanez doesn't complain about the rotating priests at his Lindenwold church. He and his wife, Adriana, are just glad they no longer drive an hour and a half to and from church.

"Now it's very nice," said Adriana, kneading plastic rosary beads, a Mother's Day gift from St. Lawrence, between her fingers. "I feel good."

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