African clergy ease US Catholic priest shortage

With the number of Catholic priests in the US declining in recent decades, many dioceses have recruited African priests like Reverend Athanasius Abanulo, a native of Nigeria, who is currently serving two churches in rural Alabama.

"Since I came to America almost 18 years now, I have been in urban cities. But the life of a priest is like the military and now I see myself in this rural country," said Abanulo. "I was like, ‘huhhhhh, where am I, what am I doing.’ It’s completely different."

After serving one full year along the border of Georgia and Alabama in two congregations, the Reverend realized how much he’s needed there.

"We are experiencing a shortage of priests currently and for particular ministry sometimes we have them and invite them to come and join in the ministry that we have available," said Bishop Steve Raica with the Diocese of Birmingham. "And to be able to draw them from these areas which are burgeoning with vocations right now has been a great source of conciliation for us that we’re able to provide priests where we might not have them available."

Abanulo, like many other international priests, has had to adapt to the different lifestyle in America. "Priests coming from outside have to be reminded that coming in to the people, to serve the people who already have their culture, it takes time. So there is a need for orientation."

Parishioner, Alison Cerovsky, of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, has found that Abanulo brings a lot of his culture to explaining the scripture. "It gives us a perspective we might not have had," she said.

Due to the lack of priests in small-town America, many clergy members will work in multiple churches. Reverend Abanulo serves in two parishes, one hour apart. Each Sunday he travels from a morning service in Lanett to the afternoon Masses in Wedowee, Alabama.

And although many parishioners have found that Abanulo has enhanced their spiritual experience, he recognizes that he can’t satisfy everybody and that his accent can be a problem. But being a good listener can help this particular challenge.

"I’ve had several discussions with him that he does have an accent and he gets excited. And he talks fast. And people can’t understand when he talks fast," said Michele Varisco, parishioner at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. "He still gets excited sometimes, but yes, it’s much easier to understand and for him to get his message through."

As more priests are recruited from countries like Nigeria, Abanulo encourages his fellow priests from Africa to remember where they come from. "It’s important for us to listen to the people we’re serving, know what their needs are. I believe we can make anything work."