Bridging the divide between cultures - Catholic Courier

Bridging the divide between cultures

GREECE — What do Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Mexico, Poland and Lithuania have in common?

All of them are the homelands of extern priests — priests from one diocese who are working in another — currently serving in the Rochester Diocese.

Twenty-seven foreign extern priests currently work in the diocese, according to the diocesan Department of Priest Personnel. Seventeen such priests attended the Rochester Diocese’s first-annual Acculturation Workshop at the Borromeo Prayer Center Nov. 29 to Dec. 1. During the workshop, the priests shared their experiences of ministering in their homeland, and learned about American culture, both within and outside the Catholic Church.

Father Michael Conboy, director of priest personnel, said the workshop was designed to assist priests in adjusting to the diocese; teach them about the history of the diocese; and to help the diocese learn more about what foreign priests need when they serve here.

“It’s a good idea to welcome them, and have some sort of formal program,” he said.

One of the workshop presenters was Sister Kathryn Pierce, IHM, coordinator of Cross-Cultural Services at the Maryknoll Mission Center in Maryknoll, N.Y. Sister Pierce has run several acculturation workshops for foreign priests in Maryknoll and across the country. She facilitated discussions among the priests about culture during the diocesan workshop.

“There’s going to be misunderstandings because there’s two different cultures coming together,” she said in an interview. Sister Pierce noted that many foreign priests come from cultures that value strong communities, extended families and the elderly, and may have difficulty adjusting to America’s emphasis on individualism and nuclear families, and its tendency to have less respect for seniors.

Additionally, she said, priests are often put “on a pedestal” in other cultures. “Here, he has to kind of build up a relationship,” she said.

During an afternoon workshop session Nov. 30, Sister Pierce and the priests discussed a wide range of issues, including how Americans view sexuality and physical expression, as well as gender roles and generational interaction. Especially in light of the recent abuse scandals, the church has become much more vigilant about sexual harassment, she emphasized, cautioning the priests to “be very careful of gestures and body language.”

Among the priests attending the workshop was Father Symon Peter Ntaiyia of Kenya, who is currently serving as parochial vicar at Blessed Trinity Parish, a five-worship-site parish clustered with St. Patrick Parish in Owego. A priest of the Ngong Diocese, Father Ntaiyia said he particularly liked learning about the history of the Rochester Diocese.

“This diocese is quite progressive,” he said. “The laity in leadership have much more say than (they) had in our diocese. That is an indication that the people own the church.” To exemplify his point, he noted that he was impressed by the number of lay people in administrative positions, including women, throughout the diocese.

On the other hand, Father Ntaiyia said he wanted to know why the U.S. church doesn’t have more young men interested in the priesthood, whereas Africans seem to be answering the call to priesthood in great numbers. He added that he also missed the liturgies of his homeland, which were lengthier and featured such lively aspects as dancing.

Father Conboy noted that the priest shortage has prompted the diocese to use more and more foreign priests, and said he plans to take an additional measure to help them adjust to the diocese. He noted that he’s working to set up a mentoring program that would match experienced pastors with foreign extern priests. In addition to his duties with the personnel office, Father Conboy is pastor of St. Jerome Parish in East Rochester and said he’s already mentored two such extern priests by having them work alongside him for several weeks.

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