Priests and Nurses:

A tale of two shortages

(From America, December 18-25, 2006, pp. 20-21)

EVERY YEAR, as dioceses struggle to meet to the need for priests to pastor the growing Catholic population in the United States, the bishops import more priests from other countries. While the practice varies by diocese, in the aggregate it grows apace. It seems so far to be a helpful stopgap measure. The most significant cultural issues that have arisen–some priests with seriously deficient communication skills and authoritarian, sometimes patriarchal styles of pastoral ministry, for example–are being addressed. (One of the most awkward situations is that of a priest who comes from an English-speaking country but cannot be understood because of an accent that was perfectly intelligible to his own people back home.) High-quality programs promoting accent reduction and cross-cultural sensitivity are now available in some regions, and more dioceses are requiring non-native priests to be accredited by such a program before they may assume a permanent assignment as a pastoral minister.

But perhaps the focus on the practical effectiveness of international priests is misplaced. Perhaps it begs the more fundamental question: Will the practice of importing clergy into the United States serve the long-term good of the church universal?


A Comparison: Nurse Shortages


A front-page story in The New York Times on May 24 reported a crisis in U.S. health care brought on by a serious shortage of nurses. To fill the shortage, nursing schools and hospitals recruited students and professionals from poorer countries, such as the Philippines. While the practice appears to be beneficial for the United States, the article highlighted the adverse effect it is having on the countries from which the nurses come. “Health care has deteriorated [in the Philippines] in recent years as tens of thousands of nurses have moved abroad,” the article claims. Since the most precious resource of any nation is its skilled human capital, that resource is diminished whenever skilled workers leave. The president of the Philippine Nurse Association has observed, “The Filipino people will suffer because the U.S. will get all our trained nurses.”

As the United States imports foreign priests, what attention is being paid to the “brain drain” or “skills drain” in the sending countries? How can we justify this when the explosion of converts in some of those countries requires ever more sophistication in leadership, planning and management of the church's future there?

According to the Times story, it is difficult for nurses from developing countries to “resist the magnetic pull of the United States.” Coming to the United States allows them to improve both their own and their families’ economic status. Nurses overseas “send home billions of dollars each year to their families.”

Experience indicates a similar magnetic pull among the international clergy. The bishops who send their priests to the United States hope that their time abroad will help the priests to become better trained and that the skills they acquire will enable them to improve the church when they return. It is a laudable vision: transfer skills from the wealthy to others who need them. But once the priests have tasted the affluence of the United States, many are reluctant to return to their country of origin. It would take an angelic view of ministerial calling to deny that economics plays a role in some priests’ eagerness to go on “reverse mission” to the United States in the first place. Remember that old saw, “The missionaries came to do good, and did well.”

The magnetism of affluence can have a negative effect on the priests’ work in the United States as well. One hears of priests from foreign cultures who seem to attend as many rituals in the communities of their expatriates as they can, assured of generous cash offerings to send home. The practice is understandable. The priests are far from home, and their families may be in serious economic need. But if this results in neglect of the community to which the priest is supposed to be ministering by his official assignment, his priorities would need realignment.


Emergent Questions


Even such a sketchy comparison between these two scarcities suggests further questions. Looking beneath the rhetoric of reverse mission, we might ask, Is this recruitment practice the ecclesiastical version of a secular scenario, in which the resources of the poor are exhausted to serve the short-term needs of the rich?

An analogous trend can be seen in the way American priests in general are currently being assigned, on the basis of quantity. The parishes with the most parishioners get the priests. As a result, the suburban parishes “get richer” in leadership at the expense of the inner-city and rural parishes. How does such a practice embody “the new evangelization” or a church in mission?

Is our practice of recruiting priests from other countries simply another example of the American penchant for the quick fix? And beyond its consequences for the developing churches, what are its consequences for the U.S. church? Does focusing on our immediate shortage prevent us from considering other available alternatives that might be more pastorally effective (for ourselves and others) in our changing world? If we are going to apply a Band-Aid, we should use one that is effective, but first we need to be sure that such a treatment is suited to the good of the body as a whole. Band-Aids are for minor cuts, not cancer.


George Wilson, S.J., is a church organizational facilitator in Cincinnati, Ohio.