NEWARK, N.J. -- Five years ago, the Rev. Rene Lima was serving happily as a priest in his native city of Sao Paolo, Brazil, celebrating Mass and mingling with parishioners in one of the world's most Roman Catholic countries.
Then, one day, his bishop called him in and told him he was being sent elsewhere to help meet a great need. Before long, Lima was on a plane touching down at Newark International Airport, where he ran head-on into some staggering statistics.
Although there are more than 100,000 Portuguese-speaking Catholics in northern New Jersey, there are only about 10 priests in the archdiocese who speak the language. And with Brazilians flocking to the area, joining the well-established community of immigrants from Portugal, the need for clergy who speak the language has become acute.
''I'd love it if we had even a dozen. The reality is, we have even less than that,'' says Archbishop Theodore McCar-rick, who made reaching out to non-English speaking parishioners a hallmark of his tenure as leader of northern New Jersey's 1.3 million Roman Catholics. He has since been named archbishop of Washing-ton, D.C.
Not long ago, McCarrick made a trip to Portugal, where he engaged in the ecclesiastical version of ''Let's Make A Deal'' with bishops in the hope of finding some Portuguese-speaking priests to serve in parishes in New Jersey. But he flew back empty-handed.
''It's not that easy,'' he says. ''Portugal is having the same problems we're having with vocations. But I did speak to several of the bishops in Portugal, and they feel a responsibility for the Portuguese here.''
Catholic priests are in short supply around the country, especially those with specialized language skills or certain ethnic backgrounds. That has led bishops in places like Chicago, Los Angeles and New Orleans to look for new ways to attract young men of different backgrounds to the priesthood.
The Archdiocese of Chicago, which claims to have the largest concentration of Polish Catholics outside of Warsaw, runs a special outreach program to attract Polish-speaking men who might be interested in becoming priests. It runs a similar program for Hispanics.
''We're always trying to attract more priests in general, and Polish and Hispanic priests in particular,'' says James Dwyer, a spokesperson for the archdiocese.
McCarrick says he explored several short-term solutions with Portuguese bishops, including lending a priest or two to the Newark Archdiocese for a while in return for English-speaking priests who could serve in Portuguese churches with significant English-speaking populations. Another idea: sending some seminarians to Portugal to study the language and culture before returning to Newark once they are ordained.
The shortage has its roots in the spread of Portuguese-speaking Catholics beyond their once-insular enclave in Newark's Ironbound section as the economy improved, plus the recent influx of Brazilians. Many now live in surrounding communities, such as Elizabeth, Harrison and Kearny.
The Rev. Michael Ward of St. Cecelia's Roman Catholic Church in Kearny spent three summers in Portugal before being ordained three years ago. He says it's essential that parishioners, particularly new arrivals, can talk about God with someone in their own language.
Recalling his own experience as he tried to learn Portuguese in Portugal, he says, ''It wasn't as easy to pray. If we consider the Mass as a type of prayer, it's easier to pray in your own language.''
His parish offers a Sunday morning Mass in Portuguese that's regularly attended by 300 to 400 people.
Lima, who was sent to St. Benedict's Roman Catholic Church in Newark from his native Brazil, says the church is often the first place where new immigrants seek help.
''When they come here, they are totally lost,'' he says. ''They need support and guidance, and we need to welcome them. They need housing, jobs, papers, they need to learn English. Each church tries to help as much as it can.''
His church has held fund-raisers to help two Brazilian parishioners who were stricken with cancer, and occasionally helps raise money to offset funeral and transportation expenses for church members who have died and want to be buried in Brazil.
''Every week, at least 100 Brazilians move into this town,'' says Francisco Sampa, the president of Baua, a Brazilian civic association in Newark. ''We are far from home, and we need spiritual support. People miss their culture and their families, and need support. They find it in the church.''
McCarrick says the church will continue to look for potential priests among its homegrown Portuguese communities, but says the shortage probably won't ease for a few years.
''I'm convinced that vocations will come from the community but not right now,'' he says. ''We have three or four young men right now in the seminary, but my concern is for the next few years.''
On the Net:
Archdiocese of Newark: http://www.rcan.org
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