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Cultural Identity and International Ministers

Lukenotes, Summer 2017

With over one-third of U.S. parishes identified as multicultural, 25 percent of newly ordained priests born in other nations, and 10,000 international religious ministering or studying in the U.S. (CARA), diversity enriches and challenges pastoral ministry.

Successful ministry in this diverse environment calls for acculturation – adaptation to a new culture through the adoption of values and customs while retaining elements of one’s own culture. Individuals who struggle with acculturation often have difficulty transitioning to a new environment and establishing healthy interpersonal connections. They may be at risk for developing depression and anxiety, and their new communities may be impacted.

Their transition can be smoother when the receiving community has an understanding of identity development, what influences identity, and the way cultural identity is formed.


Identity is the qualities, personality, beliefs and expressions that make up a person or group. A person’s identity is composed of diverse aspects: gender, sexuality, ethnicity/race, spirituality and abilities/disabilities. These fit within a particular cultural framework, a set of traditions of thought and behavior that are passed down socially from generation to generation.

Identity is closely connected to self-esteem and interpersonal perception. It develops over a lifetime and is affected by life circumstances. Three identities  important for international ministry are:

  • Ethnic and racial identity: the process by which a person develops a personal investment and attachment to his or her ethnic group or national identity. Language is a significant part of this because we learn to feel emotion and verbalize our experience through our native language. We can feel disconnected using a non-native language.
  • Spiritual identity: the process by which a person develops an understanding of feelings, thoughts and behaviors that relate to the search for the sacred or a higher being (Hill et al, 2000); this includes attachment to a religious institution, such as Catholicism.
  • Gender identity: the process by which a person comes to understand his or her own experience of gender, including personal attributes and norms, social roles, customs and behaviors.

The filter through which we experience the world and perceive our interactions with others occurs at the intersection where the multiple aspects of our identity (i.e., gender, ethnicity, etc.) meet. Attempting to separate different aspects of another person’s identity, such as race vs. gender, can limit our understanding of ourselves and others.


This intersectionality is important to understand in a multi-cultural environment (in which different cultures or cultural identities are preserved within a unified society) since every individual has his or her own cultural and societal experiences and norms.

Building an awareness of one’s own cultural filters, trying to see others through their filters, showing empathy for differences, and understanding the inherent biases and privileges of a majority group are necessary.

Ministerial Acculturation

Simple strategies can help ease the transition for international priests and religious ministering in the U.S.

Prior to Placement

Review prior psychological assessments or have an assessment completed prior to ministry placement.

  • Conduct a comprehensive interview by a skilled diocesan/community representative, psychologist or other professional. Discuss ethnicity, class dynamics and socio-economic status of the person’s native region and family, and experiences of oppression. Explore gender and family roles and expectations, spiritual development and identity, and the person’s understanding of the role and expectations of priests/religious.
  • Explore normative experiences and questions about the transition. Share information about the planned assignment and community.
  • Learn about cultural context. Research the culture and history, talk to others from the region and understand the expectations of priests and religious.
  • Implement a structured cultural visitation period to acclimate the person to the new culture and expectations. Enroll him in an acculturation program.
  • Prepare staff and parishioners. Explore cultural identity and diversity in a workshop or structured dialogue prior to being together in a work environment.

Initial Transition (Year 1)

  • Schedule time to share aspects of the newcomer’s culture – food, music, history and experiences – to help the community understand the cultural background and values.
  • Identify a priest or religious mentor from a similar cultural background to provide support and lessons learned.
  • Schedule weekly check-ins with the pastor/superior. Discuss the transition, focusing on the acculturation process and how it is working for the new minister, pastor and community.

If a Problem Arises

  • Meet. Be empathetic and exploratory, not accusatory. Prepare by reflecting on your own identity, bias and privilege that may make it difficult to be fully open to the other person’s perspective. Do not excuse inappropriate behaviors, but try to understand the intersecting cultural variables that may be contributing.
  • Develop a plan together. Identify next steps that address needs and community responsibilities.
  • Seek assistance from a psychological professional. Acculturation difficulties may result in depression symptoms: becoming withdrawn, isolated, anxious, easily agitated or angry – or there may be another serious issue.

Crystal Taylor-Dietz, Psy.D., is director of Caritas Counseling Center of Saint Luke Institute. She recently presented a webinar on this topic and is a speaker at the April 2018 conference, “Intercultural Competencies for Human Formation.”