Immigrant priests face culture shock

By  Innocent Madawo, Catholic Register Special
  • November 24, 2006
TORONTO - No sooner had David Okenyi arrived in Canada than he wished he could just turn on his heel and go back to Nigeria.

However, he did not know exactly how to say this to those around him. What would they say, considering that unlike other professionals, he already had a job before he left his home country, he could speak English and his accommodation and other comforts were assured.

In fact, the problem was his calling as a Catholic priest from Africa. He encountered a culture shock that almost sent him packing.

"I had difficulties settling in because of the differences I encountered in both the local Catholic culture as compared to what I knew and the general culture of the people of Canada as compared to mine as a Nigerian," Okenyi said.

"The food, the weather and even the mode of celebrating Mass here is very different to what I knew," said Okenyi, who belongs to the Spiritan Fathers order and is resident priest at St. Joseph's (Highland Creek) parish in Toronto.

Okenyi came to Canada in 1994 under an exchange program by the Spiritan Fathers. According to the order's provincial superior, Fr. Locky Flanagan, the program is primarily to give foreign priests an opportunity to spread and receive "mission awareness" in other parts of the world where Spiritans operate. Flanagan also indicated that more foreign priests were coming to Canada to help minister in the ever-growing immigrant communities.

In fact, the Spiritans are just one of a number of orders that bring in foreign priests to help with pastoral work.

Neil MacCarthy, communications director for the Toronto archdiocese, confirmed that dioceses also often rely on directly recruited priests or those that come to study here but end up staying either on request or voluntarily.

Collective statistics on the movement of priests in and out of Canada have not been readily available, however, in 2001 more than 400 foreign priests were working in Canada and they came from as far afield as Africa, Asia and Europe.

The high number of the foreign priests and the diversity of their cultures is actually a reflection of immigrant trends in Canada.

"So are the problems the priests face when they get here," said Michael Fullan, who was part of a program run by the Toronto archdiocese more than four years ago to help integrate foreign priests.

"I got involved after a personal experience with a priest from India who had problems when he arrived. It was in the middle of winter and he had to face people with a completely different culture to his. Try giving a homily in such a situation," said Fullan, who heads the archdiocese's Catholic Charities. "The priest was frustrated and the people complained."

Okenyi knows that too well.

"In Nigeria when you say 'The Lord be with you' the whole congregation shouts back  'And also with you.' Here, a few people may answer and in low tones. Mass is regimented here and I am still getting used to it," he said.

However, like all immigrants, with time foreign priests begin to appreciate the culture of their new congregations while the parishioners also get to know their new priest. Misunderstandings begin to thin out and frustrations are replaced with patience.

"Once in a while I go back home to refresh," said Okenyi, and when he returns, he looks forward to seeing his folk and sharing his experiences.

(Madawo is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

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