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Supporting Successful Ministry for International Priests and Religious

International priests and religious who come to serve in the United States need a strong community to help smooth their transition to American life and ministry, according to Suzanne Hollman, Psy.D.

The Church in the United States increasingly relies upon these men and women. About one out of every six priests in the U.S. has come from abroad, and 31 percent of the ordination class of 2014 was born in another country, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

The fruitfulness of their efforts depends in part on how comfortable they become with American life, said Dr. Hollman. Priests or religious who struggle with acculturation – adaptation to a new culture – may be at risk for depression and anxiety.

“Acculturative stress sets in when acculturation doesn’t happen seamlessly,” Hollman said.

Priests and religious often find the challenge of living in a new country exciting at first. But growing comfortable with the language, food, climate, political systems and social norms of the United States can be daunting.

“They have the stresses of ministry on top of the stresses of acculturation,” she said. “That’s a double whammy.”

Dioceses can help ensure a more successful transition through a dedicated orientation program to assist them in their transition, Hollman said.

She cited the Church in Australia as having a good model. It includes introductions to key leaders and peers, as well as efforts to familiarize international priests with the culture of the local community. Importantly, it includes regular follow up.

It is also necessary to provide practical assistance like language assessment and legal guidance. International priests may need to learn everything from how to drive to how to order in a restaurant.

It is important that international priests know who to ask for help when challenges arise, and that they feel comfortable asking for assistance.

“Social support is protective against acculturative stress,” Hollman said. “The church community needs to be a net.”