Program to acclimatize foreign clergy in Toronto graduates its first class

  • November 28, 2013

TORONTO - Shortly after arriving in Canada this summer from Hungary, Fr. Jeno Rigo pulled into a self-serve gas station to fill up his car. He studied the pump but, perplexed, was soon inside the station asking the attendant for help. When you are new to a country even the most mundane tasks can be challenging.

“The beginning is very difficult,” he said. “You feel insecure and you don’t know what to do.”

Rigo, a Hungarian Jesuit, also struggled to open a bank account and obtain a credit card and social insurance number. At each turn he was asked to provide Canadian-issued identification.

“It is very difficult . . . because for each of these you need two Canadian documents issued by Canadian authorities and of course when you enter the country you have nothing,” he said.

“Even if you think you know the culture more of less you still don’t know so many things,” said the pastor of Toronto’s St. Elizabeth of Hungary parish. “I just couldn’t see how I would get through all of this.”

Now, after taking the archdiocese of Toronto’s new Enculturation Program for Priests, Rigo said he has found the confidence and resources required to once again be an effective priest. And Rigo is not alone. He was joined in the program by 13 other foreign priests who arrived this summer to serve the archdiocese in various capacities, from pastor to hospital chaplain.

Toronto is the largest, most culturally diverse diocese in Canada with Mass being said each week in almost three dozen languages. The archdiocese has exploded culturally at a time when vocations have declined, so the need is urgent for priests who can relate linguistically and culturally to a diverse population. Today, two-thirds of priests in the archdiocese were born outside of Canada, with most coming from India, the Philippines and Africa.

Recognizing that foreign priests encounter a wide range of issues in settling into a new country, Fr. Thomas Kalarathil, director of priests’ personnel in the archdiocese, developed the enculturation program. Rigo is part of the first graduating class.

“I want to bring a certain amount of self confidence in these priests who are arriving here in dealing with issues,” said Kalarathil, who came to Canada from India in 1982. “We are having more and more international clergy coming into our diocese (and) ... they are not quite familiar with how we do the pastoral ministry here.”

During the course, comprising 10 four-hour classes, priests cover such topics as parish finances, the history of the Catholic Church in Canada and the relationship between sacraments and the law. They are also introduced to local customs and social standards.

“Some of them are coming from hierarchical societies where priests are up on a pedestal,” Kalarathil said. “If you are the pastor you carry much more weight and they can dictate sometimes what they want to do in the parish. We cannot do that in the North American context.”

Fr. Anthony Pizarro, who came from the Philippines to become a chaplain at Mississauga’s Trillium Health Centre, said understanding the rights and responsibilities of Canadian women, specifically in the hospital’s work force, was the most valuable aspect of the course for him.

“I’ve learned a lot from the course, specifically on the Canadian culture, how to treat women and how to collaborate with them and how to deal with the ethical issues in the medical field,” Pizarro said. “As a priest it is my humble obligation to respond in any way I can to meet the pastoral needs of these people that I am sent to minister to.”

Pizarro also struggled to get settled in Canada. But he said the program helped him become comfortable in his new home.

“When I first arrived here there were a thousand and one things to do,” he said. “Now I feel at home, I feel adjusted and now I feel I can deal with people in a deeper level.”

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