Douglas Todd: The promise and pitfalls of foreign-trained clergy in Canada

Interesting read:

It didn’t take too long for Father John Alex Pinto to realize he didn’t have nearly the authority in Canada as he did in his homeland of India.

In Pinto’s old city of Mangalore, the 4,500 loyal Catholic families who belonged to his mega-parish looked up to him as a powerful community and religious leader.

After Pinto moved to Canada 15 years ago, the Indian priest not only had to improve his English and get used to winter, but had to realize that Roman Catholics in Canada were less devotional than in India, were highly educated and much more “independent.”

Now serving as a priest in downtown Vancouver after time in Calgary, Pinto is one of more than 60 foreign-trained priests in the 200-clergy Catholic archdiocese of Vancouver.

Most of the imported priests in the Catholic church, Canada’s largest denomination with 14 million adherents, are from the Philippines and India, with others from Africa, parts of East Asia, the U.S. and Europe, says Rev. Gary Franken, the archdiocese’s vicar general. They’re needed to make up a priest shortage as the church welcomes an influx of Catholic immigrants, mostly from Asia.

Foreign-trained priests in Catholicism, however, are just the tip of the phenomenon. Thousands of clergy in a variety of Canada’s faiths received their religious preparation outside the country.

While the proportion of Catholic clergy in Canada who are foreign-trained range as high as one third in some dioceses, that is low compared to the ratio with Sikh, Muslim, Eastern Orthodox, Hindu and Jewish clergy in Canada.

Among Canada’s minority religious groups, a solid majority of imams, rabbis, priests, granthis and pastors are born outside the country, where they also receive their religious training.

There are many reasons why religious organizations in Canada rely heavily on foreign-trained clergy.

Outside Canada’s Catholic and large mainline Protestant and evangelical denominations, many leaders of faith groups say they do not have enough adherents to justify creating their own theological colleges in Canada.

It can also be enriching and reassuring for immigrants to attend a place of worship in Canada led by someone from one’s ancestral homeland. Angus Reid Institute polls show faith communities can ease immigrants’ transition to this new land.

And many congregations, according to scholars, believe there is status in having their clergy educated in places like the Punjab, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or Iran — where they are typically steeped in a religious tradition that penetrates every aspect of the nation’s life and norms.

But foreign-trained priests also run into challenges, including adapting to Canadian culture, where secularism dominates and freedom and equality, particularly for women, are premier social values. Practically, language barriers can also be difficult.

While Pinto, 62, intends to stay in Canada for the rest of his life, most foreign-trained clergy, including in the Catholic church, come here for only a short time.

“On loan,” as Franken says.

Harjit Singh Gill, who is involved in gurdwaras in Surrey, says most Punjabi-trained priests who work in Canada come for less than a year. They are appreciated by older Sikhs, he says, but tend not to appeal to younger ones.

The situation is similar, but slightly different, for most of the rabbis who serve Canada’s 350,000 Jews. Almost all are trained abroad, usually in the U.S. or Israel. That is true even for those born in Canada, like Vancouver-born rabbi and writer Yosef Wosk.

Now retired from the rabbinate, Wosk studied formally in New York City and Jerusalem. “Many, perhaps most, Canadian congregations hire rabbis from the U.S.,” Wosk said, “with not enough Canadian-born individuals available to fill all positions.”

Abdie Kazemipur, a University of Calgary sociologist and the chair in ethnic studies, says the issue of foreign-trained clergy is a “very important” and sometimes sensitive one within religions, rarely discussed in wider society or studied by academics.

There are no theological schools for imams in Canada, Kazemipur said, even though the country has a Muslim population of more than 1.2 million, centred largely in its major cities.

Although every imam must know Arabic, since it is the language of the Qur’an and the religion, Kazemipur says many Muslims outside the Middle East aren’t fluent in the language.

Foreign-trained imams are respected in mosques, said Kazemipur, but in secularized Canada adherents sometimes struggle with how to respond to imams who often expect Canada to be like the Muslim-majority country they are from.

‘In India society is totally different’

“In India, society is totally different. It was a multicultural shock to come Canada,” says Pinto, who serves the West End parish of Guardian Angels in Vancouver.

“There is more of a fear of God in India. In India, the priest is like a leader on all sorts of issues. People listen to him on everything. But in Canada the priest is not as much an authority.”

Since many of the parish members Pinto served in India lived in villages and were not highly educated, he acknowledges he initially expected in Canada to be seen as the person in command. But he soon realized that didn’t work.

“I was so impressed by the Canadian parishioners’ in-depth knowledge of religion. They don’t necessarily fear God; there is more of a relationship,” Pinto said.

All in all, Pinto said he has loved the transition to Canada, appreciates his congregation’s friendly tolerance of his lack of administrative skills, and thinks the Canadian Catholic church would not survive without foreign-trained priests.

Andrew Bennett, Canada’s former ambassador for religious freedom, says that while most Sikh, Muslim, Jewish and Eastern Orthodox clergy are trained outside the country, there are ways to ease the cultural disconnect that can be experienced.

As a deacon in the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, Bennett supports occasional efforts by small denominations like his to invite would-be clergy from other countries to spend a year in Canada before they start leading a congregation — to help them immerse in the culture.

Gill, an orthodox Sikh, said virtually every priest who serves the large Sikh populations in Metro Vancouver, Greater Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton is trained in seminaries in the Punjab region of northern India. And most only work in Canada on six-month visas. Many are not paid much.

Like Bennett, who is director of Cardus think-tank, Gill shared concerns that Canada’s Immigration Department lacks expertise to regulate the cross-border movement of foreign-trained clergy, including assessing applicants’ qualifications.

Since Gill was raised in the Punjab, he says he’s fortunate to be able to understand the India-trained spiritual leaders when they routinely speak the language of the homeland, while often toiling in English.

“It means,” Gill said, “they’re good for my generation, but they’re not good for my kids.”

Many Canadian-born Sikhs, Gill said, are not fluent in Punjabi, which contributes to them drifting away from the faith — a trend confirmed by the Angus Reid Institute, which found immigrants are more devoted to their religion than their second- and third-generation offspring.

Gill believes Sikhism and other minority religions would hold on to more followers if they had more Canadian-born priests trained in Canada.

Foreign-trained clergy face steep learning curve

Kazemipur, author of The Muslim Question in Canada: A Story of Segmented Integration, says many foreign-trained imams who travel to serve in Canada don’t realize that Muslims in North America, being a minority, live dramatically different lives from those in Muslim-majority countries, where Islam pervades every aspect of life, including laws.

“The imams are often not very good at grasping that,” Kazemipur said. “They would come to Canada as if it didn’t matter which country they go to.”

All foreign-trained imams are fluent in Arabic, in which they often lead prayers and services, but many struggle in English, which can contribute to “a cultural sense of alienation in the Muslim community.”

There are two major conversations about foreign-trained clergy, said Kazemipur.

One is what he calls the “outside conversation,” in which non-Muslims focus on the potential politicization or radicalization of Muslims. The other is the more refined “conversation within,” which focuses on adapting Islam to democratic societies that orient to free expression and sexual liberation.

It is largely the internal conversation that’s reflected in a new book by Ed Husain, an Arab scholar who quietly toured many of the 2,000 mosques serving Britain’s three million Muslims. While his book, Among the Mosques, applauds the way many Muslims have integrated into British society, Husain also found some Muslim communities distancing themselves from British culture while advocating strict versions of the faith, including religious literalism, gender separation and negative attitudes to gays and lesbians.

Kazemipur does not support attempts by politicians in countries like France, who are responding to such self-segregation by what he calls “over-regulating” mosques and religious training.

But he says clergy born and religiously educated in places like Turkey or Iran have to find ways to respond effectively to Canadian adherents facing issues that don’t exist in their native land. “If they end up in Denmark, Germany or the U.S., many would just give the same kind of sermon.”

For instance, Kazemipur said, some clergy trained in socially conservative nations are not equipped to instruct teenage Muslims about how to respond when exposed to sex education and gender-diversity programs in public schools.

A foreign-trained imam might also teach that Canadian Muslims should avoid taking out a loan that requires paying interest, since that’s forbidden in traditional Islam. “But that would basically mean Muslims in Canada can’t get a mortgage,” Kazemipur said, “or a car loan or put their money in the bank.”

Pinto has run into similar cross-cultural experiences in the Catholic realm. Until he came to Canada, particularly Vancouver’s West End, he had never ministered to Catholic parishioners who are openly gay and lesbian.

Despite the inevitable cultural challenges that occur when Canadian religious organizations import spiritual leaders, Franken, of the Catholic archdiocese, is not alone in concluding: “Ultimately, foreign-trained priests have been a gift.”

Source: Douglas Todd: The promise and pitfalls of foreign-trained clergy in Canada

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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