More International Priests Help Serve Southwest's Growing Catholic Population

By Kate Sheehy
August 05, 2014
Kate Sheehy
Father Mom of Nigeria studies Spanish to better serve the Catholic Latino congregations in Arizona.

TUCSON, Ariz. — The Catholic population in the United States continues to grow at a steady one percent each year.  But the number of priests has been declining for decades. Currently there are only around 38,000 priests to serve nearly 77 million Catholics.

To fill this gap, dioceses are increasingly inviting priests from around the world to serve their congregations. In the Southwest, these priests face unique challenges ministering to the needs of a growing Catholic Latino population. 

On a hot Sunday morning, the rich strains of music from a mariachi band fill the large, cool church of St. Augustine Cathedral. Father Mom, a priest from Nigeria, begins the celebration of Mass in Spanish. This is one of dozens of masses offered in Spanish for the Diocese of Tucson.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or CARA, conducts social science research on the Catholic Church. CARA reports that Latinos account for 71 percent of the growth in the Catholic population since 1960 and nearly 40 percent of all adult Catholics in the U.S. identify as Latino.

Mary Gautier is a researcher for CARA. She said while the Catholic population continues to grow the number of priests stopped increasing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and has been declining ever since then.

“There’s fewer and fewer priests to serve more and more Catholics and that’s a situation many dioceses are facing,” Gautier said. 

She said the rate of men becoming priests now is only about a one-third to half as many needed to keep up with both the growth of the Catholic population, as well as the retirement or death of a large community of priests ordained in the 1950s and 1960s.

A recently published book Gautier co-authored looks at the trend of international priests coming to the U.S. She said there are more than 6,000 international priests and that number has more than doubled since 1999. 

Back at St. Augustine Cathedral in Tucson, Father Mom met with Bishop Gerald Kicanas. Mom left Nigeria for the first time almost two years ago, after being invited by the Bishop to help out in the Diocese of Tucson.

Building overseas partnerships is one way Kicanas said the diocese is trying to make up for a priest shortage. He said the majority of the 41 international priests serving his parishes are from Nigeria, Ghana, India and the Philippines.

“Just as our country sent missionaries to other countries in the 1950s and 1960s, now it’s kind of a reverse mission; priests from other countries are coming as missionaries to serve, for which we’re very grateful,” Kicanas said.

In the Southwest, one of the most important challenges priests face is language.

“Many of the priests coming from other countries do not speak Spanish and one of our great needs here is for bilingual priests,” Kicanas said. 

Even those who speak English usually have to undergo something called  “accent reduction training.”

Mom said when he arrived, he realized almost immediately that he would need a crash course in Spanish to serve the large Latino population in the region. He went to a language immersion program in Mexico.

“I almost went crazy trying to learn so much in one month, but I knew I didn’t have the luxury of a lot time,” he said.

Mom recalled one time he was trying to tell a Spanish teacher he was tired, which is “cansado,” and instead he used the Spanish word for married, “casado.”

“I said thanks be to God I said that in the class, not in the town to someone who’s going to wonder what kind of priest is married,” he laughed. 

But Mom shouldn’t be too hard on himself. Pedro Cabrera attended Sunday’s mass and said Mom’s Spanish is very clear.

“It’s a wonderful thing that priests come from other countries to help us. We need people to grow the faith and bring people to the church,” Cabrera said in Spanish.

Many international priests like Mom will go back to their home countries after a few years. Mom said there’s a great need for priests in Nigeria as well.