Washington D.C., May 4, 2021 / 11:00 am (CNA).
The Diocese of Burlington, Vermont, says that four immigrant priests will be forced to return to their home countries for 12 months, due to visa renewal delays in the United States.
Five Vermont parishes will be left without a priest in residence due to the development. A spokesperson for the diocese explained that the visa renewal process currently takes much longer than it used to.
“We were recently informed that the [visa renewal] process now takes four times longer for several reasons: stricter screening process, reduction of staff to process applications, and the pandemic/remote work,” Ellen Kane, executive director of development & communication for the Diocese of Burlington, told CNA on Tuesday.
According to the diocese, visa renewal applications for the priests were submitted within the typical timeframe, but now will not be renewed in time.
Three of the priests affected are from the Philippines, while the fourth is from Nigeria. All four were legally residing in the United States under a religious worker visa.
In a press release from the diocese, Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington said that this situation was “completely unexpected” and prompted “a significant number” of priest transfers to help fill parish vacancies. The early stage of the visa renewal process usually takes about four months, he said, but now takes around 17-18 months.
“My staff began the process for the green cards in what we understood to be a timely fashion only to discover that we were at least a year too late for the priests to be able to stay,” said Coyne. “Even though these priests want to stay with their parishes here in Vermont, they must go home now so that they can return to Vermont in 12 months.”
Along with retirements and transfers, five parishes in the diocese will not have a priest in residence for the coming year. The Diocese of Burlington has shuffled priests around in an attempt to mitigate the unexpected shortage of clergy.
“I’ve tried to do everything I can to make sure that as many parishes and churches will continue to have pastors to care for them and I think we will be okay,” Coyne said. “I know it will be difficult for a while for those ‘priest-less’ parishes, but we will try and provide as much coverage as possible for Sunday Mass and the sacraments.”
The five parishes without a priest in residence are located throughout the state.
The diocese announced a total of 17 clergy transfers – 16 priests and one deacon who will be serving as a temporary administrator of a parish – in the press release on Monday. Most of the changes will go into effect on July 1.
The Diocese of Burlington is the only Catholic diocese in the state of Vermont.