Filipino Immigrant is Among Thousands of International Priests Filling America’s Vacant Pulpits

After the 8 a.m. Sunday mass at St. Joseph Church on Staten Island, Father Rizalino Garcia can often be seen dashing to nearby St. Thomas Church to perform a second mass.

“Sometimes you have to say mass and run,” he says with a laugh.

With two churches, a school and 4,000 active congregants, Garcia — or Father Rhey, as he is known — and the parish’s three other priests have their hands full. But Garcia said he likes to stay busy. And for this Filipino immigrant, ministering to the people of his Staten Island parish has become more than a post: It’s his life’s calling.

Garcia is one of more than 6,600 international priests in the United States, a population that currently comprises a quarter of the country’s diocesan priests. The majority of international priests come from India, followed by the Philippines and Nigeria, to fill a growing number of vacancies. Fewer and fewer American natives are entering the priesthood.

“It’s really a problem,” Garcia says. “Some churches are closing because their priests are dying or retiring.”

Garcia came to the United States six years ago to study education and is currently completing his doctorate. He didn’t plan to stay, but he quickly realized that although his parishioners were materially better off than friends and family back home, many seemed to be experiencing an emptiness in their spiritual life.

“America is a first-world country, and if you compare it with where I came from, materially everything is provided for,” he says. “But material progress is not enough to be fulfilled.”

Garcia often encounters parishioners devastated by job loss, debt, and illness. He prays with them, and reminds them they’re not alone. “I help them relax and not lose faith in the midst of crisis,” he says. “A material crisis can lead to a bigger crisis. Sometimes people want to give up their faith. It could lead to a spiritual crisis. It could jeopardize relationships with family members.”

America is a first-world country, and if you compare it with where I came from, materially everything is provided for. But material progress is not enough to be fulfilled.

At St. Joseph – St. Thomas Parish, members include Italian and Irish Americans, whose grandparents and great-grandparents immigrated to the United States in the 20th century, as well as more recent immigrants from the Philippines, such as Garcia.

“We all integrate. I’m Filipino, but I love Italian food, so I spend all the big holidays with Italian families,” he says, laughing.

While the parish’s Filipino congregants often find their initial years in America challenging — they must learn a new language, understand a new culture — after a year or two of hard work they adapt, resuming their positions as doctors, nurses, accountants, architects.

“This is one of the great characteristics of immigrants: They are hard-working people. They know how hard it is back home, so if they have the opportunity sometimes they have two jobs,” Garcia says.

In fact, he says, many are surprised by how much extra time their jobs leave them. “They come to America, and say ‘Is this all?’ So you get another job!” he says.

Garcia currently holds a green card and is applying for citizenship. While the process has mostly gone smoothly, Garcia notes that it’s quite expensive. To reach his current permanent resident status, he has paid $1,475 in application fees, money he has saved from a modest priest’s salary. He would like to see the process become more streamlined and less costly.

“It’s very expensive for an immigrant who is just starting his or her life here, especially because immigrants help their families back home,” he says.

Overall he is excited to begin his life as an American citizen, especially since he already feels completely at home in his community. He recalls the time he told some seventh-grade boys how he planned to travel to his house in the Philippines. They were shocked to learn he wasn’t born in the United States.

“They never realized I’m not from here,” he says. “But that’s what happens. When you take root in the lives of the people, you don’t see the difference. When you are immersed with them, they see no color and hear no accent — you are one with them. This is what incarnation is all about. When God in the face of Jesus became just like one of us so that we will see no difference between God and man, because God is already with us. That is the mystery of incarnation. I was always fascinated with incarnation. I didn’t realize it was happening to me.”

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