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Foreign clergy mitigate shortage of priests in Diocese of Greensburg

Jacob Tierney
| Monday, March 30, 2015, 11:00 p.m.

A trio of Filipino missionaries who will begin serving in the Diocese of Greensburg are among foreign clergy being assigned to fill gaps left by a lack of local priests.

The diocese is counting on a regular rotation of foreign clergy to bolster its ranks as the number of priests continues to decline, officials said.

The diocese has 11 Filipino priests. While two are leaving in June, several more are expected to arrive this year, said the Rev. Jonathan Wisneski, who leads the diocese's international priests program.

The Rev. Arnel Estrella, the Rev. Efren Ambre and the Rev. Patricio Aborde arrived in Greensburg this month and began a three-month acclimation process to prepare for their five-year stay.

Soon, they will start serving local congregations, and if all goes as planned, they will be assigned to parishes within a few years, Wisneski said.

Wisneski said he initially was hesitant about bringing in priests from afar. Historically, Western nations have sent missionaries to developing countries, and the reversal seemed strange at first.

“I don't want to see ourselves, Greensburg, as a mission diocese. We see ourselves as a first-world country, but we have priests coming to us,” he said.

His concerns were eased, he said, when he saw parishioners' response to the new pastors.

“Their people love them,” he said.

Shrinking numbers

The international priests program started five years ago as the diocese looked for solutions to cover its shortage.

The diocese has 64 active priests, less than half the number in 1990, according to spokesman Jerry Zufelt. The number doesn't include the eight Filipino priests and 11 others who belong to religious orders such as the Benedictines.

Of those 64 priests, 14 are 70 or older and are expected to retire soon, Zufelt said.

The diocese plans to ordain three priests in June.

Many dioceses in the United States have turned to recruiting priests from countries with a strong Catholic presence to boost flagging numbers. A 2010 study by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops found 6,453 international priests working in America, and that number likely has risen in the past five years, Wisneski said.

Bishop Lawrence Brandt has traveled to the Philippines and met with bishops there to find candidates to serve in Pennsylvania.

Although Filipino is the first language of most people in the Philippines, English is the nation's second official language, and most Filipinos are fluent. That, along with the influence of American culture, means that priests from the region are ideal for serving in the United States, Wisneski said.

Still, it takes time to acclimate to many aspects of American culture, said the Rev. Jaime Ozoa, who arrived in Greensburg from the Philippines five years ago.

He and another priest were the first two members of the Greensburg diocese's international priests program.

Ozoa pastors St. Hubert Parish in Point Marion and Ss. Cyril & Methodius Parish in Fairchance, “partner parishes” in Fayette County, and will return home in June.

The Catholic faith plays a huge role in daily life in the Philippines, where an estimated 80 percent of people say they are church members, while America is much more secular, Ozoa said.

“It's very different from home because they respect the priests so much there,” he said. “Here, we are just like anybody else.”

Challenges in America

The Rev. Francisco Gan Jr., who has been in Greensburg for about a year, said he's been surprised in several ways.

The Philippines are fairly homogeneous culturally and religiously. “Here, you don't see very many Asians, and that's kind of a challenge,” he said.

Gan is a parochial vicar at four parishes, Our Lady of Grace, St. Paul and St. Benedict in Hempfield and St. Bruno in South Greensburg.

Although most of the parishioners are Caucasian, they represent a variety of cultures and behaviors, he said.

“The four parishes that I'm serving, each one has its own parish culture; every congregation is different from every other congregation,” he said.

Still, the global similarities of the Catholic faith outweigh the divisions, Ozoa said.

“Our faith overcomes cultural differences,” he said.

Jacob Tierney is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-6646 or jtierney@tribweb.com.

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