Appropriation of Clay priests reflects growing national trend in Catholic Churches
- Thursday, December 11, 2014 - 06:00
ORANGE PARK – A native of the Philippines, the Rev. Rafael Lavilla speaks slowly and focuses on enunciation for his parishioners. With an accent that is pronounced but clear enough, he said first impressions can be a challenge. "People see me and think ‘oh, who’s this boy? Am I going to be able to understand him?’ Then I start speaking and I see their relief. In our parish, they get used to me not being white and they get used to my accent – they are more concerned with how I live out my faith," said Lavilla, one of three priests at St. Catherine of Sienna Catholic Church in Orange Park.
Lavilla’s story is part of a growing trend in the Roman Catholic Church in America – more and more, the church is turning to countries outside the U.S. to find priests to shepherd its American parishes. Of the Catholic parishes in Orange Park, Fleming Island and Middleburg, each priest comes from outside the U.S. Two are from India, one is from Ireland, Lavilla is from the Philippines and another is from Poland.
According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, there are 39,368 priests in the nation. Many of them – 12,389 – are from a religious order such as the Jesuits, Franciscans or Benedictines. Priests who are not from an order are known as diocesan priests and total 26,979. About 25 percent of all diocesan priests in the U.S. are foreignborn.
Seeing the need to bridge the gap in cultures, the Catholic Church includes enculturation programs in its training for international priests that strives to soften foreign accents.
"I came to the U.S. because of the need. There used to be a lot of people entering religious vocations-priests, brothers, sisters, monks and nuns-in the U.S. and it’s the countries they sent missionaries to that are now sending missionaries back," he said.
India sends the most priests to the U.S., followed by the Philippines, then Nigeria, and Ireland ranks fourth according to data from the Center for Applied from page 20
Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, a group that tracks Catholic Church statistics. Lavilla is not only an ordered priest with the Jesuits, he is also the secretary of the National Association of Filipino Priests. He said there are 900 priests in the U.S. from the Philippines.
Lavilla said the Catholic Church is very robust in his native land – to the point where it is assumed a boy could become a priest from an early age. He said this notion surrounded him in fth and sixth grades. In seventh grade, he began preparing for a life of priestly vocation.
"The Philippines is a country rich in vocation. If a family has several children, they hope one will be offered back to the Lord as a priest or a nun, but especially a priest and we are celebrities there. In Manila, there are so many parishes that we have Mass on the hour and we make a lot more money than we do in the United States. It’s a challenge to come here and be so far away from our families but we see the need and we want to help out."
Lavilla said the degree of secularization in America is a challenge that contributes to the priest shortage here. The Rev. Donal Sullivan of Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Fleming Island is from Ireland. He said secularization has also occurred in his homeland, but when he was growing up, it was more like the Philippines is now.
"There had always been a surplus of priests in Ireland. We were very religious when I was growing up in the 1950s. Families assumed at least one boy would enter the priesthood – it was expected and if none of the boys in your family wanted to, people would think there was something wrong with your family. Ireland sent a lot of missionaries to other English-speaking countries but church participation started dropping in the 1980s, particularly among the young people. There’s a much greater rejection of organized religion now than there used to be," Sullivan said.
Being from an English-speaking nation, Sullivan has an accent most Americans have little dif culty understanding. He said there are some differences in the meaning of some words and other cultural adaptations he has had to make in his 26 years in the U.S., having now been a priest for 50 years. Lavilla was ordained nine years ago and said his culture brings something to Clay County many residents need – Spanish.
"I’m the only priest in Clay County who celebrates Mass in Spanish. I can go home and be close to my family – it’s a challenge to be so far away and they made a huge investment in sending me here," Lavilla said. "In the Philippines, our families pay for our training and by the time we come here, we’re already ordained. The American dioceses don’t have to pay for our education, so they get a lot out of having us here."