Fr. Jean-Claude Ndanga is one of the 20-25 priests who enrol in the Enculturation program each year. Photo by Andrew Ehrkamp

Foreign priests schooled in Canadian ways

By  Andrew Ehrkamp, Canadian Catholic News
  • November 30, 2017
EDMONTON – This winter, Fr. Moses Savarimuthu is ready.

It’s been just over a year since Savarimuthu experienced an Alberta winter for the first time. He traded life in the tropical city of Trichy, India — his hometown — for his first assignment in Canada, as co-pastor of Our Lady of Angels Parish.


“When I was in Fort Saskatchewan I was driving out to Lamont, Redwater and the surrounding communities, sometimes in heavy snow. At first I thought I would drive into the ditch,” recalls Savarimuthu, who has since been reassigned to Blessed Sacrament Parish in Wainwright, Alta, about 200 kilometres east of Edmonton. “Sometimes ice had formed on the road, so when I was driving I was really frightened.”

Savarimuthu noted some big differences in Church life, too. In India there’s a 10-day celebration at each parish on their patron saint’s feast day; preparation for First Holy Communion and Confirmation takes weeks, not days; and the church is teeming with kids.

In Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Fr. Jean-Claude Ndanga was accustomed to parishioners dancing in his church during the Mass — which might raise eyebrows at his new parish in Fort Saskatchewan.

To say there can be a bit of culture shock inside and outside of parish life for foreign priests is an understatement. However, the impact is eased a little by their participation in an Enculturation program offered through Newman Theological College to international priests who serve across Western Canada. It’s roughly four weeks of classroom and practical instruction on topics ranging from Canadian and First Nations culture, Church history and how to enunciate when preaching in English. 

Each year, 20 to 25 priests participate in the program, which began in 2004 through the work of Fr. Jack Gallagher, who was president of Newman at the time, and Alice Colak, who was in charge of immigration and settlement with Catholic Social Services.

Since then, 17 dioceses in Western Canada have sent priests to Edmonton for Enculturation. More than 235 priests from 22 countries have taken the program.

“Catholic churches give birth to vocations, but not enough,” says Fr. Robert Gauthier, co-director of the program. “So they need to rely on foreign priests, who come here for three, four, five years.

“The program is to facilitate the transition before being launched into their parishes. You have to have an awareness of the society that you are working in.”

Even though all priests share a similar theological background, there is a steep learning curve. Aside from some education on practical matters like Church history, there is also discussion of social topics such as appropriate personal space and behaviour in a pastor that might turn Canadians off. Some of the students also gain a greater appreciation for human rights.

“Freedom is not always respected,” said Ndanga, associate pastor at Our Lady of Angels Parish who arrived from Congo in September. “The respect of human rights is not always observed, but I see I can learn more from Canadian people. Many questions were coming into my mind about what was going to happen there. It was very, very helpful for me, because I realized that I needed to know more about Canadian people, especially its culture.”

Gauthier describes it as a learning process that works both ways. “The adaptation is not only in one direction. The adaptation is for the priest, but the community also has to adapt.”

To that end, a large part of the Enculturation program is focused on enunciation. Priests spend more than seven three-hour sessions on accent clarity. Gauthier said it’s much more important than people think, especially when preaching a homily.

“This is one of the major public challenges in their communication,” Gauthier explained. “We tell them ‘Your communication has to be clear.’ You could do a very substantial homily, very spiritual, but if we don’t understand you, that’s a major issue.”

A year after graduating from the Enculturation program, Savarimuthu laughs, saying he’s learned to keep his sermons short and to the point. 

“Be brief. Be clear. Be seated! They want some jokes. It makes the priest more human.”

The Enculturation program includes a visit to Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Enoch to observe how Mass is celebrated by First Nations, and a learning session with Gary Gagnon, the Aboriginal relations coordinator for the Archdiocese of Edmonton. 

“If you want to serve people from First Nations, if you don’t know their background, you don’t know their history and the challenges they are facing now, you could have a very good heart but it could be very difficult,” said Gauthier.

Foreign priests face the additional challenge of isolation and homesickness, so they are paired with a mentor priest in the same diocese to share experiences.

“It’s my country. I miss my family, my friends, my land and my culture,” Ndanga said.

“I’m feeling at home with Canadian culture. I have to make myself Canadian among Canadians. I came to work with people. I came to be one of them, to work with them.”

(Grandin Media)

Comments (1)

  1. Loretta Reid

Just want to say how grateful I am that you have all left your familiar homes to minister to us. We are still a young country - please don't give up on us! And always say a prayer to your Guardian Angel when you're driving - that's good advice...

Just want to say how grateful I am that you have all left your familiar homes to minister to us. We are still a young country - please don't give up on us! And always say a prayer to your Guardian Angel when you're driving - that's good advice no matter the weather.

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