All the new priests joining the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson this year are from Nigeria, reflecting nationwide growth in the number of foreign-born Catholic clerics serving in U.S. dioceses.
Foreign-born priests are filling vacancies in the American Catholic Church, where the priesthood is declining in numbers as older priests retire and fewer young men seek vocations.
And while the trend at one time, particularly in the 1950s and ’60s, was for the United States to send Catholic missionaries to Africa, there is now a reversal. Africa is sending missionaries to the United States who have high hopes of evangelizing Americans.
The Tucson diocese now has 13 African priests, including the three Nigerians – 12 percent of the total number of priests serving diocesan parishes.
Nationwide, 31 percent of this year’s 553 new Catholic priests were born outside the United States – most in Vietnam, Mexico, the Philippines and Poland. That’s up from 1998, when 24 percent of that year’s new U.S. Catholic priests were foreign-born.
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“The church is thriving in the Third World, and vocations are increasing,” Diocese of Tucson Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas said Friday after welcoming the new priests and giving each a book on Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, a Jesuit priest who came to the Tucson area in 1692.
“It’s a great joy to welcome missionaries,” he said. “This church has always welcomed missionaries, beginning with Father Kino.”
The soft-spoken new priests, who say they are enthusiastic about encouraging young Tucsonans to consider religious life, will live in the rectory at St. Bartholomew’s Parish in San Manuel. They will work at San Manuel while serving the neighboring Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Mammoth and St. Helen Mission in Oracle.
The new clerics, all from a religious order called the Via Christi Society, are the Rev. James Uko Aboyi, 32, the Rev. Sebastine Tor Bula, 31, and the Rev. Richard Terfa Kusugh, 29.
The addition of the Nigerian priests marks the second straight year that all the newly ordained priests in the Diocese of Tucson have been foreign-born – last year, the diocese added five priests, all from Mexico. Locally, 21 percent of priests serving parishes in the Diocese of Tucson were born outside the United States.
“We’re very blessed,” Kicanas said. “On the other hand, we need to foster and encourage vocations closer to home.”
Sixteen young men are in seminaries studying for the priesthood through the local diocese – seven are American. The others are from the Philippines, Mexico and Ecuador, said the Rev. Remigio Y. “Miguel” Mariano Jr., a native of the Philippines who is director of the Diocese of Tucson’s Office for Vocations.
A total of 108 priests serve in the diocese’s 75 parishes, including its three newest clerics, who arrived Wednesday.
Raised and educated in Nigeria, they had never been to the United States before this week. They were ordained in Nigeria on July 3.
Diocese spokesman Fred Allison said the trio has been briefed about the sexual abuse crisis that has affected the American Catholic Church nationally and locally. He said they received education about abuse prevention in seminary training in Nigeria.
Tor Bula said his faith was inspired by a white priest doing missionary work in Africa. Now he hopes he can return the favor – a black man who perhaps inspires a white American.
The three new priests are looking forward to joining their new community and making an impact here by sharing their enthusiasm and deep faith. They already have celebrated Mass at St. Bartholomew’s.
“The work never stops,” Terfa Kusugh said. “Kino did not do it in three years, but we are trying to do our bit.”
The population of priests in the United States has declined 26 percent since 1965, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. At the same time the priest population has shrunk, the Catho-lic population has grown.
As a result, 16 percent of the country’s 19,026 Catholic parishes – including three in the Tucson diocese – do not have a resident priest.
Some critics wonder why the U.S. church would rather import priests than allow existing American lay administrators to run parishes, ordain women or admit back into the priesthood ordained American men who have left the ministry to marry.
“I want to celebrate the ordinations of these young men who are coming to the United States. But really, it is a stopgap measure and it has doubtful possibilities of success in the long haul,” said Sister Christine Schenk, executive director of the Ohio-based FutureChurch, a national group that wants to allow all baptized Catholics, including women and married men, into the priesthood.
“It’s a consequence of our leaders having their heads in the sand,” she said.