Recruits from Africa help ease the US Catholic clergy shortage

WEDOWEE (AP) -- Rev. Athanasius Chi Abanulo, who uses skills from his African homeland to minister in rural Alabama effectively, determines how long he can keep his Sunday homilies going based on who's in the pews.

Recruits from Africa help ease the US Catholic clergy shortage

For the majority of white, retired parishioners in Wedowee who attend the English-language Mass at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, seven minutes is the perfect time. He said, "If you go beyond this, you lose the people's attention."

The priest, a Nigerian-born priest who was born in Nigeria and is serving as a Spanish-language priest at the Mass one hour later, knows that he can double his teaching time. He said, "The more you teach, the better it is for them."

Abanulo is a man who moves from one American post and another. He has learned to adapt his ministry to the culture of each community he serves, while incorporating some of the spirit his homeland into the universal rhythms that make up the Mass.

Abanulo stated that Nigerians are more relaxed when they go to church. They love to sing and dance. The liturgy may last up to two hours. They don't have to worry about it."

Abanulo, who has been in America for 18 years, has held various pastor and chaplain roles. This is a continuing trend in American Catholic Church. American-born women and men are less likely to enter seminaries or convents. U.S. dioceses have begun to look to international recruiters to fill the vacancies.

Birmingham Bishop Steven Raica said that the Diocese of Birmingham has expanded its search for clergy to include places where there are burgeoning religious vocations such as Nigeria and Cameroon. Raica was also a priest from Africa in Michigan's diocese.

He said, "They have been an immense help to us in being able to offer the breadth of ministry that is available to us."

Africa is the fastest-growing area in the Catholic Church. The Rev. Thomas Gaunt is the director of Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. This research focuses on the Catholic church.

The situation is different in the United States, where the Catholic Church faces significant obstacles in recruiting home-grown clergy after decades of declining attendance and the devastating effects of clergy sex abuse scandals.

Catholic married men and Catholic women are still barred from the priesthood. Arguments that lifting these bans would alleviate the priest shortage have not been supported by the top leaders of the faith.

Gaunt stated that there is a smaller number of people who entered seminaries and convents in America starting in the 1970s. "Those who entered in the '50s or '60s are now old and the numbers are determined more by mortality.

According to Georgetown center data, between 1970 and 2020, the U.S. saw a drop in priests by 60%. More than 3,500 parishes are now without a resident pastor as a result.

Abanulo is responsible for two rural Alabama parishes. A typical Sunday begins with an English-language Mass at Holy Family Catholic Church, Lanett, which is about 125 miles (200 km) from Birmingham along Alabama-Georgia's state line. He then drives an hour north to Wedowee where he celebrates two Masses in English and one in Spanish.

Amber Moosman, a first grade teacher and a Holy Family parishioner since 1988, said, "He just breaks out into song and a majority of his lectures, he ties his boyhood and that just loves me hearing those stories."

Moosman says Abanulo's preaching style differs from other priests she has seen. She said, "There wasn't an all-of-a-singing priest singing, nothing like that...It had a very quiet, ceremonial, and very strict" tone. It's very different now.

Abanulo was ordained to the priesthood in Nigeria in 1990. He arrived in America in 2003, having previously lived in Chad. Abanulo's first U.S. position was as an associate pastor at the diocese Oakland, California. His ministry focused on the rapidly-growing Nigerian Catholic population. He has served as a hospital chaplain, pastor, and chaplain at Alabama University since then.

According to Georgetown, the steepest declines in religious sister numbers have occurred amid the U.S. clergy shortage. They dropped 75% between 1970 and 1970.

Maria Sheri Rukwishuro found out she was being sent by the Sisters of the Infant Jesus order of Zimbabwe to West Virginia as a missionary nun. She asked her mother superior: "Where is West Virginia?"

She was afraid, worried about the unknowns.

"What kind people am I going? Rukwishuro said that she is a Black nun who is going to a White country. She spoke from Clarksburg, West Virginia where she has been teaching religious education since 2004 to Catholic and public school students.

Rukwishuro clearly recalls when a little girl approached her at her introduction and "rubbed her fingers all the way on my fingers, then she turned her gaze at my finger and she smiled, but my heart sank...She thought that I was dirty." Now, Rukwishuro is a U.S citizen and says it feels like home.

Her first culture shock was an overnight snowfall. "I screamed really hard. She said, "I thought it was the end" It is my favorite thing. That is what I meditate to.

It is not uncommon for new clergy to experience culture shocks during their integration into American society.

It was cremation for Sister Christiana Onyewuche, a Nigerian hospital chaplain who administered the last rites of the dying in Boston. She thought, "Like really?" She thought, "Like really? I can't even imagine."

She arrived in the U.S. 18 year ago and was previously the president of the African Conference of Catholic Clergy and Religious. This support group is for African missionaries who are currently serving in the U.S.

Onyewuche stated that communication can be a problem for African clergy when serving Americans. Many dioceses offer training to soften accents in an effort to address this problem. Abanulo, who attended the Oakland training, said that it helped slow down his speech speed and improve his pronunciation.

Abanulo, who relocated to Alabama in 2020, admitted that he was initially nervous about his new posting. It meant that he had to give up his comfortable position as university chaplain for two rural churches.

"People told me, "Father don't go there." He said, "The people there are rednecks."

After a year and a warm reception, he said he now tells his friends that "there are no rednecks" "All I see is Jesus necks."

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