I do not like foreign priests.
No. That isn't so. I have gotten along with lots of foreign priests. I just also had several very negative encounters with priests from India and Africa, and like a typical white American, I lumped them into a category instead of treating them like individuals. I also will openly admit that except for priests from Vietnam or from Latin America, the foreign priests I encountered spoke English that was so differently accented from mine that I often lost the thread of a sermon or conversation trying to attend to the words.
In actuality, my experiences with priests who came from other countries was typically positive when I interacted with them in my own parish. We had a large immigrant population and so were always hosting clergy from around the world for the short or long term. Many of these priests were students at a local Catholic university and were wonderful men. Actually, all of the foreign priests I got to know at my parish were individuals and I have positive feelings about them.
When it comes down to it, what I didn't like was priests who visited my parish or schools and preached as guests. Oftentimes misogyny played a large role in their preaching, and the nature of carnal sins of a variety of types also loomed large. This was then typically followed by guilt trips about giving money to the missions. I just, these sorts of visitors rubbed me the wrong way, and don't get me wrong, many many many American priests did too.
But this is a story about being wrong.
My great-aunt Maria died in 2006. She had Friedrich's Ataxia and had outlived her predicted lifespan by 20 years. Over the course of my childhood she had become completely dependent on others. When her mother died in 1988, this meant the staff at the nursing home where she was moved to, considering both her sisters were much older than her and frail themselves. I did not know Maria well, since I had not grown up in my extended family, but instead around the country, and upon returning to my fair city, she was already in an institution and I had a difficult time with this, with nursing homes of all kinds. My cousin Gina and I went and visited sometimes, and I went with my grandmother (her sister) as well. But I was not a regular visitor nor did I know her well. I can conjure her shaky high voice in my head, already weak when I was a small child, and I can see her face, but I don't know anything about what she liked, what she knew, what she hoped for or talked about or enjoyed.
She died right before our region was hit was a massive thunderstorm that knocked power out for 2/3 of the area for 3-6 days. It was epic, and part of the fallout was that the church she grew up in (as well as my father and his siblings) had no electricity. Since we were such a small group, the funeral home said we could have the mass there.
You can see it coming. In walks a priest, and he's from India. I sit down by my parents in folding chairs and sigh to myself. If only they'd been able to bring a priest in from her home parish, a priest who KNEW her. This guy, where did they even find him? It's sad enough that we're here in this parlor instead of church...
Mass starts. He introduces himself and then there are readings and a psalm. He reads the gospel and then begins his homily in English that I do have to lean in to understand. And I'm glad I did.
Because he wasn't from her home parish where she grew up. He was from the parish where the nursing home was located, and his entire ministry was at the nursing home. He met with Maria 3-4 times a week and they had become close friends and confidantes. He admired her strength and steadfastness through her lifelong debilitating illness. She, who had never been 100 miles from her own home, encouraged him here in America away from everything he knew and grew up with. He said he would miss her terribly and their talks he would always hold in his heart.
I've never listened to a funeral homily from any priest anywhere that both smacked me across the face while also exposing the shared humanity of both the deceased and the speaker. I was utterly ashamed of my previous private grumbling and relieved I hadn't said any of that crap out loud.
It was a watershed moment for me. I always, I believe, had been good at encountering children where they were; as a teacher you have to be good at that. But this is when I started giving that grace to adults. Adults who didn't look like me. Who didn't speak like me. And who probably didn't think like me. I don't even remember Maria's priest's name, but I think about him a lot. I needed to hear what he had to say and it shattered the way I used to think.