I read “Father Has An Accent,” by the Rev. Willard F. Jabusch (2/16), with some measure of astonishment, followed by a genuine feeling of humility. I am not, strictly speaking, an “imported priest,” but I do consider myself a “foreign missionary.” I did my first five years of seminary training in England with the only British-founded Catholic religious congregation, the Mill Hill Missionaries. I later joined the Society of Jesus in New York and after eight more years was ordained in the Bronx, where I am now missioned.
Father Jabusch may be relieved to know that my former seminary rector in London, a New Zealander with an accent who now works in the Archdiocese of New York, as well as my former novice master and novitiate classmates think of me as too Westernized. How could I not be? The entire structure and content of my education in the Philippines was American-inspired. And I once worked (10 long years, as a matter of fact) as an engineer for Royal Shell Petroleum in the Philippines and in the Netherlands.
Three years in The Hague gave me the exaggerated Dutch guttural “g” that I have come to consider a God gegeven geeft. Accents aside, Father Jabusch suggests sympathy with the American culture as an important criterion for the kind of foreign missionary he would welcome to the church in the United States. Would my love for the New York Yankees and my growing fascination with the New Jersey Nets count as sympathy with the local culture? I hesitate to name a football team, because I failed to develop a spectator’s taste for the sport, even when I faithfully watched the matches my high school students played in Jersey City.
I lead retreats for college students now, and find my entry into their world made less difficult by watching the television shows they watch, even inane reality shows. I am growing ever more familiar with what inspires them, as much as with what dissipates their life forces. Does my genuine presence to the young carriers of Father Jabusch’s American culture count as sympathy, or will my nondescript foreign accent (far too many influences) negate it?
Will the presence of “imported priests” in the church in the United States find its meaning solely in the most practical sense of relieving the clergy shortage? “The church on earth is by its very nature missionary,” declares the Second Vatican Council in its “Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity” (No. 2), “since according to the plan of the Father, it has its origin in the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The missionary nature of the church must surely be seen in both sending and receiving missionaries. Can the original missionary-sending churches be transformed by grace and circumstance into missionary-receiving churches? Could they be more blessed to receive now?
I dare say that a church-in-need without any visible presence of missionaries (can they be any more visible if they do not speak in a strange accent or look different?) finds itself in an anomalous situation. It cannot be in her nature! How does a church inhospitable to foreigners, who would serve it gladly, be expected to exercise hospitality to strangers in its pews? If the church can find something salvific in the presence of the sick among us, because they not only invite the practice of charity, but also “remind us of the essential and higher things,” is there nothing similarly redemptive in the mere presence of a Vietnamese priest whose “English pronunciation has a long way to go”? Surely, there must be a surplus of meaning in the presence of imported priests in the church in the United States that has yet to be comprehended, a mystery that will reward reflection.
Father Jabusch asks if imported priests will work for a unity of mind and heart in the American church, or will there be a Polish turf, a Vietnamese enclave and a Mexican diocese? Let there be no mistake: if there are such enclaves and turfs, the recent imports could not have carved them out for simple lack of opportunity and resources! The need for “importation” arose precisely because already existing enclaves and turfs stretched declining priest-resources of the church.
And how is this unity of mind and heart to be conceived, and how is it operative? Five parishes within a one-mile radius in Jersey City were consolidated into a single parish a few years ago. The five had existed as veritable European ethnic and cultural “leagues,” to use Father Jabusch’s term, for a century or longer. They were the American church then. They still are the American church now, but in a new configuration consisting of thinning ranks of the original ethnicities and burgeoning numbers of new ones.
Will anyone argue that the former church of five parishes had no “unity of mind and heart?” Or that the single parish now has demonstrably more of such unity? Surely, unity of mind and heart must be found essentially in the celebration of one faith and one baptism in Christ Jesus.
“The missionaries who went off to Africa and Asia had as their primary concern the establishment of the native clergy, who would best understand the hopes and needs, the customs and dialects of their own people,” writes Father Jabusch. I was born and raised in the island of Leyte in the Philippines and grew up in a parish run by Chinese diocesan priests who had fled the Chinese Communist takeover of their country in 1949. The Chinese missionaries never learned to speak our local dialect. Their grasp of English was better, but they learned it late in their ministry. Despite our smiles and hard-to-contain laughter during their painful homilies, they offered with us and for us fitting sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. The sacramental life of the people they served was their primary concern. Priestly vocations were certainly part of the fruit of their labors.
The first two years of my education were in the hands of Irish Sisters of Mercy. They prepared me for first penance and Communion and instilled discipline in the classroom and outside in accented English. I was able to identify what they spoke as “a brogue” only two decades later while studying Greek at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. The Irish sisters did not have to attempt to learn the local language; they taught us theirs. So did the German, the Dutch and the American S.V.D. missionaries who ran the secondary and tertiary institutions I attended. They were primarily educators, for the need of the time and the moment was education.
I am sure my vocation took its definite shape and texture, even if it bloomed only years later, from the influences of these foreign missionaries. But their influence was not deliberately exercised to make a priest out of me or anyone else. I attribute to the Trinity alone my call and destiny. If, however, I deliberately seek out and promote vocations where I am now and make no apology for it, that is because religious vocations are a clear need of the church in the United States, to which I am missioned. The real needs of the church dictate missionary strategies.
Father Jabusch has no reason to fear, at the moment, that “imported priests” will be less generous and magnanimous in giving their lives and talents to the church in the United States. He mentions some of the serious considerations that “imported priests” face here: facility with the English language, familiarity with the local culture, the challenge of building fraternal bonds with the “native clergy” and the need to work to unite minds and hearts. None of these obstacles are insurmountable. If the chief actor and motivator of Christian mission is the Holy Spirit, the one who is alone sufficient and whose power is made perfect in human weakness (2 Cor 12:9), then the accomplishments of the past, and perhaps even greater ones, can be realized again for the greater glory of God.
On the other hand, if the presence of foreign priests is indeed the result of purely human calculation, then their efforts will fail, and miserably too. More likely, their work will represent the meeting of divine purpose and human response. Whatever the results, we know that Christian discipleship has a cost, for “the servant can never be greater than the master.” I can honestly be grateful to Father Jabusch for raising my awareness of one reaction the church I endeavor to serve lovingly and faithfully can have to my missionary presence in her midst. This awareness forces me to turn anew in humility and pleading to the God of my vocation.