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Posted March 2, 2010

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Foreign priests and the risk of plunder

By John L Allen Jr
National Catholic Reporter

Generally speaking, Hill City, Kansas, population 1,500, where my 95-year-old grandmother is still going strong, isn’t the best place to spot cutting-edge trends -- we’re not talking about “Milan of the Great Plains.” In Catholic terms, however, there’s one sign of the times that’s clearly penetrated here, in the form of the pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, Fr. Henry Saw Lone.

When their longtime pastor recently retired, the Catholics of Hill City feared they would become yet another circuit-rider parish. Instead, the Diocese of Salina was able to assign a Fidei Donum priest from Burma (Myanmar). Fr. Henry is thus a symbol of one of the most important forces cutting through American Catholicism at the retail level: Estimates are that one in six Catholic priests currently serving in the States comes from abroad, and roughly 300 new international priests arrive every year.

At first blush, the logic for this “reverse mission” seems impeccable. The Catholic church in many parts of the global South is growing by leaps and bounds, so seminaries are full. Moreover, the religious dynamism of the South contrasts with the ennui of the secular West, so these priests can deliver a badly needed spiritual shot in the arm.

To be sure, parachuting a foreign priest into an American parish can occasionally make for a bumpy ride. Sometimes the problems are as simple as language. (An African priest told me a few years ago that every time he told his congregation in rural Pennsylvania something was important, they’d laugh at him. That continued until someone explained they thought he was saying “impotent.”) Once in a while, foreign priests may also have a hard time adjusting to the less clerical ethos of American parishes.

For the most part, however, these guys do just fine. Two years ago, for example, I met Fr. Nichodemus Ejimabo, an Ibo prince from Nigeria who leads a parish in tiny Johnson City, Texas, composed of white ranchers and Mexican farm workers. He’s fit in well, in part by drawing on his experience as a striker for the Nigerian national soccer team, the “Super Eagles,” kicking a ball around with the kids before and after Mass.

I was in New York last Saturday when it was announced that another Nigerian priest serving in a local parish was going back home as coadjutor bishop. As Archbishop Timothy Dolan scrounged around for a pectoral cross and ring to present as a gift, he passed along the reaction in his chancery: “We sure hope they can send us another guy, because they’re really popular.” Dolan also told the story of an upper-crust parish in White Plains, where a legendary Irish pastor recently died. The faithful of that parish petitioned the archdiocese to allow two Filipino priests who had been serving under the Irish monsignor to stay on as their pastors.

As for Hill City, my grandma reports that Fr. Henry is terrific. Not enough people go to church, she laments, but she concedes that was true long before Fr. Henry arrived on the scene.

There are other benefits too.

Having a priest serving in the States or Europe produces economic benefits, direct and indirect, for his sponsoring diocese or religious order. The priest will often send home a share of his salary, which is usually substantial by the standards of the church in other parts of the world. His diocese or religious order usually becomes eligible for an annual missionary appeal, so he can preach in a parish over the summer and collect a nice offering for the church back home. Often he’s also able to foster a sister church relationship, pairing a poor community at home with a wealthy one in the West, which can lead to various forms of support.

Moreover, the growing presence of foreign priests is also a way of addressing the intellectual Achilles’ heel of American Catholicism, which is a terribly insular frame of reference. Read any sampling of recent books or articles on Catholic affairs in America -- from left, right or center -- and generally the author’s imagination stops at the water’s edge. In reality, the 67 million Catholics in the States represent just six percent of the global Catholic population of almost 1.2 billion, and it’s a blessing to be introduced to that wider and infinitely more complex Catholic world.

I’ve sketched the upside at some length, because there’s a “but” coming, and I want it to be seen for what it is: A caution amid real appreciation for the gifts offered by so many good priests from abroad.

Now for the “but”: One can make a case that Western bishops are, perhaps with the best of intentions, plundering the resources of the global church.

While seminaries in parts of the South may be bursting at the seams, in no way does this mean that the Catholic church in regions such as Africa or Asia is running a priest surplus. In fact, because those local churches generally baptize infants and adult converts at a much more rapid clip than they ordain priests, their priest shortage is far more acute than in the West. In the United States and Europe, the ratio of priests to baptized Catholics is roughly 1-1,300. (As Cardinal Francis George of Chicago has ruefully observed, if one considers merely the ratio of priests to practicing Catholics, the “priest shortage” might actually disappear altogether, especially in some highly secularized pockets of Europe).

Here’s the same ratio in other regions:

Sub-Saharan Africa: 1-4,786

The Caribbean: 1-8,347

Latin America: 1-7,081

Southeast Asia: 1-5,322

At least from a strictly arithmetic point of view, one could argue that the bumper crop of new priests being turned out by Catholic seminaries in the global South is far more urgently needed at home.

That reality has not escaped the attention of the Vatican. In 2001, a document titled “Instruction on the Sending Abroad and Sojourn of Diocesan Priests from Mission Territories” was issued by the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Slovenian Cardinal Jozef Tomko, at the time the prefect of the congregation, said such transfers were damaging to the church in the global South. India, for example, doesn’t have enough priests to take care of its 17 million Catholics, yet at that time there were 39 priests from India working in one Italian diocese alone. Overall, Tomko claimed, there were 1,800 foreign priests in Italy, with more than 800 working in direct pastoral care.

“Many new dioceses could be created in mission territories with such a number of diocesan priests!” Tomko complained.

Further, there’s no use denying that at last some priests from the global South want to serve in Europe and the States for the same reason that immigrants from other walks of life come here: Because the standard of living is higher. Bishops are often willing to let them go for the same reason that families across the global South encourage breadwinners to emigrate: because their remittances help keep the extended family afloat.

At least some Southern bishops wonder if the Catholic church is simply replicating the immigration patterns of the broader world, with all the potential for injustice and exploitation those patterns carry. Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, put it this way a few years back:

“What we don’t want is to get into a Gastarbeiter situation,” Onaiyekan said, “where a European priest feels overwhelmed having to say three Masses on Sunday, and so he wants a black man to say them. Surely this is not where the church wants to go, getting poor people to do jobs that the rich don’t want to do, as today happens in other walks of life.”

In reality, if Roman Catholicism were a multinational corporation, a systems analyst would probably conclude that there’s a serious mismatch between where the church’s market is growing and where its resources are allocated. Two-thirds of our people are in the global South, but only one-third of our priests. Philip Jenkins has written, “Viewed in a global perspective, such a policy can be described at best as painfully short-sighted, at worst as suicidal for Catholic fortunes.”

That impression has certainly occurred to bishops in the South. During the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist, Bishop Lucio Andrice Muandula of Xai-Xai in Mozambique said that, “It comes naturally to me to ask to what extent an ecclesial community without the Sacrament of the Eucharist can reach that dynamism of life which allows it to change into a missionary community.” He drew the conclusion: “One must insist on the equal redistribution of priests in the world.”

By “equal distribution,” of course, Muandula meant shipping priests from North to South, not the other way around.

Recently I laid all this out for Dolan of New York, who acknowledged that it raises a “really valid question,” while stressing how delighted he is to have priests from abroad serving in the archdiocese. He also admitted that the bishops of the United States really haven’t talked this out, but have instead more or less made decisions on the fly.

Perhaps it’s time for the American bishops to have that conversation, in dialogue with their brother bishops in the global South, to see if there’s a way to deliver badly needed financial support without aggravating already egregious imbalances.

And, just to head off a worried phone call this weekend: No, Grandma, I’m not saying Fr. Henry has to go home!