November 29, 1996

Web posted at: 5:30 a.m. EST

From Correspondent Jeff Flock

Immigrants helping to fill gap in Catholic Church

Tradition changing as number [priest & students] of priests dwindles

CHICAGO (CNN) -- The [Roman] Catholic Church in the United States is facing a dilemma like none other in its history -- swelling ranks of parishioners, yet dwindling numbers of priests to lead them.

Though they can barely speak English, for the eight Vietnamese students at St. Joseph Seminary in Chicago, the priesthood needs them almost as much as they dream of becoming priests.

"I think I will help the homeless, the poor the most," said Hien Nguyen. "(I would) just like to bring the sheep back to the faith and help the faithful grow stronger in the future."

The priesthood has always been popular among immigrants in the United States. But in the past, if they didn't speak English well enough, they were politely turned away. That's no longer the case.

That's because that while the number of American Catholics continues to grow, the number of priests is shrinking. Nearly 1,000 priests were ordained in 1965. Thirty years later, only half as many are taking the priestly rites each year.

Filling the void

To help shrink the gap between parishioner and priest, Father Jack Clair is helping put together a program in Chicago to encourage immigrant men to the fold.

He's found especially eager candidates among Vietnamese, who faced oppression for their [Roman] Catholic faith in their homeland.

[Tran] Khuong Tran and his father finally made it to the United States after eight failed attempts at escaping their homeland.

Only now the barriers aren't government, but language.

They struggle with the words that will enable them to relate to their new congregations. It is a daunting task. But the new-found freedom to try makes their faith strong.

"I believe in life there are two things," Tran said. "It's either pursue your success or pursue your dream. I will pursue my dream."