The Rev. Athanasius Chidi Abanulo, who uses skills honed in his African homeland to effectively minister in rural Alabama, decides how long he can stretch out his Sunday homilies based on who is sitting in the pews.
The English-language Mass at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in the small town of Wedowee has a sweet spot for the mostly white and retired parishioners. “If you go beyond that, you lose people’s attention,” he explained.
The Nigerian-born priest, one of many African clergy serving in the United States, knows he can quadruple his teaching time for the Spanish-language Mass an hour later. “The more you preach, the better it will be for them,” he explained.
Abanulo has learned how to tailor his ministry to the culture of the communities he serves while infusing some of the spirit of his homeland into the universal rhythms of the Mass as he moves from one American post to the next.
During his 18 years in the United States, Abanulo has served as a chaplain and pastor across the country, exemplifying a continuing trend in the American Catholic church. As fewer American-born men and women enter seminaries and convents, dioceses and Catholic institutions in the United States have turned to international recruitment to fill positions.
According to Birmingham Bishop Steven Raica, the Diocese of Birmingham, where Abanulo leads two parishes, has broadened its search for clergy to places with burgeoning religious vocations such as Nigeria and Cameroon. African priests were also important in Raica’s previous diocese in Michigan. Africa is the fastest-growing region for the Catholic Church. The seminaries there are “fairly full,” according to the Rev. Thomas Gaunt, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, which conducts research on the Catholic church.
It’s a different story in the United States, where the Catholic Church is facing significant challenges in recruiting home-grown clergy as a result of decades of declining church attendance and the negative effects of widespread clergy sex abuse scandals.
Catholic women and married men continue to be barred from the priesthood; arguments that lifting the bans would alleviate the priest shortage have not gained traction with the faith’s highest leadership.
“What we have is a much smaller number entering seminaries or convents across the country beginning in the 1970s,” Gaunt said. “Those who entered in the 1950s and 1960s are now elderly, so the numbers are much more determined by mortality.” According to data from the Georgetown Center, the number of priests in the United States fell by 60% between 1970 and 2020. More than 3,500 parishes have been left without a resident pastor as a result of this.
Abanulo is in charge of two parishes in rural Alabama. His typical Sunday begins with an English-language Mass at Holy Family Catholic Church in Lanett, about 125 miles (200 kilometers) north of Birmingham, on the Alabama-Georgia state line. Following that, he is driven an hour north to Wedowee, where he celebrates two Masses, one in English and one in Spanish.
“He just breaks out in song, and a lot of his lectures, he ties in his boyhood, and I just love hearing those stories,” said Amber Moosman, a first-grade teacher and Holy Family parishioner since 1988.
Abanulo’s preaching style, according to Moosman, is very different from the priests she has previously observed. “There was no all of a sudden, the priest sings, nothing like that…It was very quiet, very ceremonial, very strict,” she said. “It’s a lot different now.”
Abanulo was ordained in Nigeria in 1990 and moved to the United States in 2003, following a stint in Chad. His first position in the United States was as an associate pastor in the diocese of Oakland, California, where he focused on the rapidly growing Nigerian Catholic community. He has since worked as a hospital chaplain and pastor in Nashville, Tennessee, as well as a chaplain at the University of Alabama.
According to the Georgetown Center, religious sisters have experienced the steepest declines in the midst of the clergy shortage in the United States, dropping by 75% since 1970.