Kwasi Gyamfi Asiedu, Associated Press, December 27, 2021
The Rev. Athanasius Chidi Abanulo — using skills honed in his African homeland to minister effectively in rural Alabama— determines just how long he can stretch out his Sunday homilies based on who is sitting in the pews.
Seven minutes is the sweet spot for the mostly white and retired parishioners who attend the English-language Mass at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in the small town of Wedowee. “If you go beyond that, you lose the attention of the people,” he said.
For the Spanish-language Mass an hour later, the Nigerian-born priest — one of numerous African clergy serving in the U.S. — knows he can quadruple his teaching time. “The more you preach, the better for them,” he said.
As he moves from one American post to the next, Abanulo has learned how to tailor his ministry to the culture of the communities he is serving while infusing some of the spirit of his homeland into the universal rhythms of the Mass.
During his 18 years in the U.S., Abanulo has filled various chaplain and pastor roles across the country, epitomizing an ongoing trend in the American Catholic church. As fewer American-born men and women enter seminaries and convents, U.S. dioceses and Catholic institutions have turned to international recruitment to fill their vacancies.
The Diocese of Birmingham, where Abanulo leads two parishes, has widened its search for clergy to places with burgeoning religious vocations like Nigeria and Cameroon, said Birmingham Bishop Steven Raica. Priests from Africa were also vital in the Michigan diocese where Raica previously served.
Africa is the Catholic church’s fastest-growing region. There, the seminaries are “fairly full,” said the Rev. Thomas Gaunt, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, which conducts research about the Catholic church.
It’s different in the U.S. where the Catholic church faces significant hurdles in recruiting home-grown clergy following decades of declining church attendance and the damaging effects of widespread clergy sex abuse scandals.
From 1970 to 2020, the number of priests in the U.S. dropped by 60%, according to data from the Georgetown center. This has left more than 3,500 parishes without a resident pastor.
Abanulo oversees two parishes in rural Alabama. His typical Sunday starts with an English-language Mass at Holy Family Catholic Church in Lanett, about 125 miles (200 kilometers) from Birmingham along the Alabama-Georgia state line. After that, he is driven an hour north to Wedowee, where he celebrates one Mass in English, another in Spanish.
Abanulo was ordained in Nigeria in 1990 and came to the U.S. in 2003 after a stint in Chad. His first U.S. role was as an associate pastor in the diocese of Oakland, California, where his ministry focused on the fast-growing Nigerian Catholic community. Since then, he has been a hospital chaplain and pastor in Nashville, Tennessee, and a chaplain at the University of Alabama.
Amid the U.S. clergy shortage, religious sisters have experienced the sharpest declines, dropping 75% since 1970, according to the Georgetown center.