Foreign priests take course to learn about culture, laws

Doreen Bloos and Fr. Robert Gauthier are part of the enculturation team that helps with foreign priests' adjustment to Canada.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Doreen Bloos and Fr. Robert Gauthier are part of the enculturation team that helps with foreign priests' adjustment to Canada.

November 9, 2015
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

When Father Antony Pudota arrived in Calgary from southern India last year, he didn't know anything about the Canadian way of life, except that winter is very cold. He felt a bit out of place.

Fortunately for Pudota and dozens like him, the Western Conference of Catholic Bishops has been offering an enculturation program for foreign priests through Newman Theological College in Edmonton.

The purpose of this four-week module is to provide an opportunity for international priests to receive pastoral and cultural training to enhance their effectiveness as pastoral leaders in Canada.

Pudota enrolled in the four-week program in October 2014, four months after his arrival, and now is a changed man.

"It benefited me a lot," he said of the program. "I was very new at that time and I didn't exactly know the culture of this place and the people's way of life here."

Through the enculturation program he learned about Canadian culture and customs, even about winter and winter driving.

"Now I feel very comfortable," said Pudota, who serves as judicial vicar of the Calgary Diocese. "I'm very fine with the culture and the people now."

Nigeria's Father Peter Ebidero, who now serves at Holy Family Parish in St. Albert, is also happy he participated in the program. "It exposed me to so many things that I wasn't aware of," the 45-year-old said. "I needed to know what is acceptable here and why people do what they do. Now I know."

Seventeen Western Canadian dioceses have sent foreign priests to participate in the enculturation program. The priests, about 200 so far, come from 26 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America.

"Western Canada is relying on vocations from abroad," asserts Father Robert Gauthier, a member of the formation team at St. Joseph Seminary who serves on the enculturation team.

He says dioceses like Edmonton, Calgary and Regina are producing local priests, but they are not enough.

"So the dioceses need to rely on priests from other countries, who come for three, four or six years."

All priests, wherever they loved, go through a similar formation program. What they lack is knowledge of the new culture and local idiosyncrasies.

"So the purpose of the enculturation program is to make sure that these priests understand the new culture," says Gauthier. "(They must understand) that the Church is not apart from culture and society. It is rooted in society and culture."

For example, a priest from Africa may understand relations with women in a different way than a Canadian priest.

"Here a major value is gender equality," asserts Gauthier. "There is also the issue of authority. Here we try to have an authority of service and not imposing our views or our choices.

"So I would say these priests that are already formed need to be taught (how to integrate to the Canadian culture)."

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

POLITICAL, LEGAL SYSTEMS

Among other things, participants learn about pastoral and cultural practices in Canada, 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 the Forst Nations and Catholic schools are part of the program.

"We do everything we can to help our international priests become open-minded, flexible individuals who understand the different ways in which we look at issues and themes like trust and respect, for example, in Canada," explained Frank Bessai, who helped design the program and has been teaching it since 2005.

"If we can get them into the program within the first six months of their arrival in Canada, it will help them to understand what Canadian people are like. We are a very informal society, even when we go to Church. Sometimes we will have people who are lawyers and dentists going to church in their flip-flops. Or people are going to bring a latte from Starbucks with them (into the church)," Bessai laughed.

One of the big issues in most parishes that have foreign priests is that people "can't understand the priest's accent," commented enculturation team member Doreen Bloos. "They all speak English, but people cannot understand their accent. So here are sessions on to clarify their accent, called accent clarity sessions. We bring in an expert from the outside to help them make their accent more understandable to Canadians."

Bloos says in some countries the priest doesn't have many trained lay people working along him like in Canada, but the program helps him deal with that.

"They must understand how as a priest you relate with the staff if there are conflicts of personality or interest," commented Gauthier. "You can't just fire the laity here; there are laws that protect them and (the foreign priests) must be aware of that."

Gauthier said the program is not seeking foreign priests to deny their own culture, but to understand the culture of the people they are going to serve. "They come here with their own richness and we like that," he said.

"The relation of the Asian priest with the elderly is very respectful so they can teach us to take care of our parents and grandparents. Sometimes they are scandalized when they learn we place our (elderly) parents in a home. So this is richness."

MINISTRIES BENEFIT

Bessai, who works in immigration and settlement with Catholic Social Services (CSS), says by and large "the program has had a successful and positive impact on the ministry of the priests who have been involved. And I would say those priests are better off than those who have not participated."

Over the years, CSS has been responsible for providing all non-religious information about life in Canada. Topics such as parish administration and Canadian Church history are presented in the morning by staff from Newman College and St. Joseph Seminary.

Using his experience with immigrants, Bessai and others have taught foreign priests about the education system, the health care system, Canadian culture, Canadian values, Canadian recreation and participation, the Canadian legal system, the Canadian social services system, the culture with regards to elderly people and Canadian family life, Canadian police, Canadian social structure-all aspects of life aside from the liturgical piece.

Bessai says the priests need this type of knowledge because they are brought in as community leaders. "It's kind of hard to be a community leader when you haven't even lived in the community," he quipped.

LEARNING CURVE

"There are a lot of expectations around the leadership piece that priests coming from other countries need to understand. For example things like hierarchy, informality, gender equality. Even though some priests may say that they understand those things, in everyday practice it's a learning curve for them to become culturally adapted to the way in which social structures work and function in Canada."

Sister Mary Clare Stack worked for the enculturation program as part of the CSS team for seven years until last year. Her role was to find resources and facilitators to address topics such as domestic violence, gender equality and homelessness. She even organized meals with foreign priests and Canadian families.

Stack is convinced the program has been of great help to the priests. "We did both written and verbal evaluation with the priests and I would say generally they were very positive."

However, the priests faced challenges when they didn't have a good support system in place in their particular parishes, Stack explained.

MENTORSHIP

So last year for the first time the program offered what's called a priest mentorship program, where a foreign priest is matched with an established priest from his diocese for mutual support and friendship.

There are also plans to develop a pilot a program for parishioners so that they are better prepared to welcome foreign priests and understand their challenges.