International priests welcomed to Canada

Peggy Kayne leads a session during the three week enculturation session held at Newman Theological College for priests from other countries who are serving in Western Canada.


Peggy Kayne leads a session during the three-week enculturation session held at Newman Theological College for priests from other countries who are serving in Western Canada.

October 7, 2013

Back in his native Ghana, Father Alain Guenou celebrated Mass before a young, lively congregation that would sing, clap and dance during worship. His new rural congregation in the Archdiocese of St. Boniface, Man., is composed of mostly elderly parishioners who are more solemn.

Guenou, who has been serving in St. Boniface for the past six months, is conscious that he has to tread carefully in his new environment, where dancing during Mass could be seen as irreverent and an innocent touch could be considered inappropriate. Sometimes a foreign priest's accent could be a source of tension in the congregation.

Fortunately, there is help for priests like Guenou. For the past eight years the Western Conference of Catholic Bishops has been offering an enculturation program for foreign priests through Newman Theological College in Edmonton.

The purpose of the four-week program is to provide an opportunity for international priests to reduce their accents, and receive pastoral and cultural training to enhance their effectiveness as pastoral leaders in Canada, said Sulpician Father Andrzej Szablewski, the program coordinator.

"They come from English-speaking countries but they need accent clarity; they need to work on their pronunciation and on their diction in order to be clear when they preach, when they perform the sacraments with their parishioners," he said.

A team made up of staff from Newman College, St. Joseph Seminary and Catholic Social Services delivers the program.

Currently, 25 priests from India, Philippines, Nigeria, Ghana, Brazil, Congo and Poland are enrolled in the program, which began Sept. 17. They are preparing to serve in the dioceses of St. Boniface, Edmonton, Regina, Grouard McLennan, St. Paul, Whitehorse, Kamloops, Vancouver and Prince George.

Nine will serve in the Edmonton Archdiocese. Some of the priests have been in the country for just weeks, others for several months.

While most are diocesan priests, a few belong to international orders such as the Salesians and the Pallotines. Most priests come with contracts for three to five years.

"It varies. Sometimes the priests themselves see that they cannot adapt and go back," Szablewski noted. "Sometimes they are asked to leave (if) in their attitude they don't show enough willingness to reach out toward the needs of the people."

Fr. Alain Guenou

Fr. Alain Guenou

Among other things, participants learn about pastoral and cultural practices in Canada, cross-cultural communication, Canadian climate, collaboration with priests and laity, gender equality, the role of women and youth, the political system and the legal system.

Classroom presentations, socialization with Canadian families and field trips to Indian reserves and Catholic schools are part of the program. The goal is for the newcomers to embrace the new culture and adapt to it fully.

"Our role (as a team) is to make their adaptation smoother so their distress isn't as severe but also so that their ministry is more apostolically effective," said Szablewski.

International priests, however, don't have to unlearn anything. "I don't think we are trying to assimilate them to the point that they need to forget who they are," Szablewski explained.

"We would like them to bring the gifts that they bring with them. The adaptation is about learning the new language, the new way of speaking, behaving, praying and playing (not about forgetting your past)."

Szablewski is originally from Poland, where reverence is paramount. "We come to Church, we kneel in our pew, we internalize, we close our eyes, we start praying and we wouldn't think about talking in church. It's unthinkable."


When he came to Canada 20 years ago, however, he learned that hospitality is important here.

"(In Canada) hospitality is important to the point that in some churches the gathering area is almost as big as the church itself," he said. "So I had to move from reverence to hospitality."

Guenou, who is associate pastor at a rural parish in St. Boniface, said the program has opened his mind and helped him make his integration into the Canadian society easier.

Guenou, 39, came to Canada because his bishop told him the Church in St. Boniface needs priests. "Would you allow yourself to go to St. Boniface to help your brothers and sisters?" his bishop asked. "I said 'Yes, my Lord. If you want me to go I'm ready.'"

He is happy he came. "Parishioners are so awesome that I'm not even homesick," he laughed. Apart from the winter which was merciless, Guenou has noted other differences. In Ghana, for instance, he just signals a person to come to his side and that person comes. "Here I have to ask."

Fr. Raju Arockiadoss says he gives thanks for the opportunity to minister in Canada.


Fr. Raju Arockiadoss says he is grateful for the opportunity to minister in Canada.

In Ghana, young people make up the majority of Catholics. "Here the seniors are more than the youth."

Guenou said in his home country people are "loud and pronounced" whereas here they are quiet. "They are happy people but they express their happiness in another way, which is not in my culture."

At the first Sunday Mass Guenou celebrated, there was no choir and no singing. He was so shocked "I nearly forgot my homily."

However he is not planning to try to lead his new parishioners to change to his own standards. "That would be myopic in my view," he said. "I have to understand the culture a bit more and bring the Gospel into the culture of Canada."


Szablewski said the program helps priests realize they are not alone in the struggle to adapt to the new culture.

"They see that their brothers who come from other countries struggle as well. They see that their mentor priests, or the (Canadian) priest that they begin their ministry with, struggles with them as well, trying to adapt to their new or different way of preaching."

They learn that parishioners also struggle in order to reach out to international priests and understand them.

"At times parishioners get frustrated because the priest is not clear enough in pronouncing or speaks too quickly in a different accent or tells stories that perhaps don't resonate as much as they resonated in their heritage culture."

Szablewski said the program emphasizes the need for collaboration with women and laity in general.

"In some countries the priest is master and commander," he noted. "Here the priest is a leader who listens and who delegates and facilitates and leads toward the same mission and same vision of the Church."


Apart from coordinating the program, Szablewski gives various sessions, including one on boundaries where international priests learn about tactile or physical boundaries, time, counselling and accepting gifts.

Fr. Joseph Adu Gyamfi

Fr. Joseph Adu Gyamfi

In Canada, for instance, "we don't touch the same way" as in Africa or Latin America, where people are used to hugging one another, he explained. "Here we are much more reserved and the (international priest) needs to be much more careful."

As for counselling, Szablewski said a priest should never receive a person in need in his own living quarters but in the office.

"Same thing with accepting gifts; in some of their cultures refusing a gift is offending the person. Well, they need to learn that accepting a gift can create certain ambiguous situations between the priest and the person who comes asking for help."


Father Arputharaj (Raju) Arockiadoss, a member of the order Heralds of Good News, came from India nine months ago to serve in the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan. He is one of two priests from the same order attending the program and has a contract for five years.

"Canada is clean country. You respect the traffic rules, it has a very good health care system and it has very sharp four seasons," he noted. "I thank God for this opportunity."

Arockiadoss, 31, said he is learning a lot about the language through the enculturation program. "We have our own accents. We all knew English (when we came here), but the way we construct the sentences, the way we emphasize, is different.

"Here we are being taught how to speak so the recipients can understand what we are saying."

Arockiadoss believes taking the course will help him and the other priests to "not feel out of place" in their parishes. "People will understand us."


Father Joseph Adu Gyamfi of Ghana described Canadians as "very nice, welcoming people" and the enculturation program as "very helpful."

"If you enter a different culture, you better know the culture of the people and the way they speak," he said. "So you have to try to reduce your accent (so they can understand you)."

Like Guenou, Gyamfi, 45, came to serve in the St. Boniface Archdiocese. When the WCR spoke to him in mid-September, he had been in Canada for just a week. However, he was already able to make comparisons.

"Here you have individualism and each one is for himself and herself. In Africa, we are more social."

The Masses in Canada are different than in Africa. "In ours we preach loud, we clap, we dance. Here they are very solemn."

Is it possible to adapt? "Yeah, why not? We have to," Gyamfi said.