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Importing foreign priests is not the answer to the vocations crisis.

Robert Mickens, Rome - La Croix International - Mon, Apr 23rd 2018

Pope Francis this weekend will ordain eleven new priests for the Diocese of Rome. At a Mass in St Peter’s Basilica to celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Easter, otherwise known as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” the pope will also ordain five other men for two different religious orders.

But only five of Rome’s 11 new priests are Italians, having done their formation at the diocese’s major seminary. The other six who will be incardinated into the pope’s diocese are non-Italians. They are members of the Neo-Catechumenal Way.

They did their preparation for ministry at the movement’s Redemptoris Mater Seminary and will likely be sent abroad to serve in one of its many missionary apostolates or parishes. 

The ordination Mass is taking place on the 55th annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations. And in earlier-released message for the occasion, Francis said:

“Each one of us is called – whether to the lay life in marriage, to the priestly life in the ordained ministry, or to a life of special consecration – in order to become a witness of the Lord, here and now.”

“In the diversity and the uniqueness of each and every vocation, personal and ecclesial, there is a need to listen, discern and live this word (of God) that calls to us from on high and, while enabling us to develop our talents, makes us instruments of salvation in the world and guides us to full happiness,” he said.

In short, the pope focused on all the various types of Christian callings. But he did not say anything about what almost everyone recognizes today as a very real “vocations crisis” in the Church – especially regarding the priesthood.

There are various aspects to what might be better called a priesthood crisis. La Croix International recently published two articles that looked at one of those aspects – the clericalist mentality that seems to be a disease (or at least a temptation) inherent in the very ethos of the ordained.

If you missed those articles the first time, please take a look at Joe Holland’s “Get rid of the clergy – But keep Holy Orders” and Andrew Hamilton’s “Clerical culture produces poor fruit.”

Admittedly, these essays are dealing with a subjective element of the priesthood and how it likely relates to the current vocations crisis. 

People will debate whether clericalism is turning young men away from exploring a call to priesthood or whether, on the other hand, it is attracting questionable candidates who actually revel in it.

There are other subjective issues relating to the vocations/priesthood crisis that need to be urgently looked at, as well. And, at least on paper, the Congregation for the Clergy has issued guidelines to help bishops and people involved in formation programs to do just that.

While the quality of seminaries and the priests they produce are largely subjective categories, quantity is not.

Objectively, the figures do not lie. It is a fact that the numbers of young men joining the seminary and being ordained presbyters are not keeping pace with the overall increase in the numbers of baptized Catholics. Nowhere.

Not even in Africa, where some people would have us believe the situation is not so dire. And where they believe that the “vocations-rich” African Church will become the protagonist of some new, “reverse evangelization” of the now greatly secularized, established Churches of Europe and the developed world.

They are very wrong.

The latest Vatican-published Statistical Yearbook of the Church shows that in Africa there are currently just over 5,000 Catholics for every priest. It’s even worse throughout Latin America where the ratio is upwards of 7,000 to one. 

Compare that to the Churches in Europe, North America and Oceania where the figure hovers around 2,000 Catholics for every priest.

There are a number of possible steps that could be taken to shorten this widening gap.

But the most likely to be accepted at this time, also for historical and practical reasons, would be to change the criteria for admission to Holy Orders by expanding the pool of candidates to include married men of proven virtue – the so-called viri probati.

Unfortunately, most of the world’s episcopal conferences have been reluctant or stubbornly opposed to exploring this option even despite gentle encouragement to do so by both Paul VI and Pope Francis.

Instead, the bishops have opted for an easier and safer way forward – import priests from countries where, continuing the myth, they believe there is an abundance of vocations.

Let us leave aside for a moment the subjective, but very grave reasons why doing so can be quite hazardous – such as the difficulty foreign priests often face in adapting to a new culture, its language and different societal norms (and the effect that it has on the people to whom they minister) or the understandable tendency for priests from impoverished and destabilized countries to want to move to a safer, more prosperous land.

There is, again, a more objective reason why it is not a bonafide solution for a long established Church in the West to import foreign priests – especially from the younger churches of Africa where, despite rapid growth, they are still living in largely un-evangelized mission territory.

“(Such a diocese) can of course accept temporary help in difficulties or crises but must never deprive young Churches of these priests who are often those with the best training. It is a matter of fairness and of ecclesial sense.”

That was the warning issued nearly 20 years ago by Cardinal Jozef Tomko, who at the time was prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (Propaganda Fide).

In the summer of 2001 his Vatican office issued an “instruction on the sending abroad and sojourn of diocesan priests from mission territories.”

It was intended to “counteract the prevalent trend of a certain number of diocesan priests” from mission territories who “want to leave their own country and reside in Europe or North America, often with the intention of further studies or for other reasons that are not actually missionary.”

The instruction noted that one of the non-missionary motives for these migrating priests was the allure of “higher living conditions,” justified by “the need for young priests in some of the established Churches.”

The document lamented that “these priests are then convinced by such reasoning not to return to their own country, sometimes with the tacit permission of their own bishop, or at other times in opposition to his request that they return home.”

It’s quite a different and legitimate reason, the congregation continued, for bishops to send priests abroad in order to provide pastoral care to people from “their own country who have emigrated overseas.”

At the press conference to present the document the now-94-year-old Tomko said it’s actually desirable for priests to accompany their fellow countrymen abroad so as to minister to their spiritual needs.

In fact, in countries that have a long history of accepting immigrants – such as Canada, the United States and Australia – there has always been a steady stream of foreign-born priests to spiritually care for the new arrivals.

And, more recently, a similar trend is occurring in the Arab States where there are large numbers of Catholic migrant workers from places like the Philippines or India.

But Cardinal Tomko reiterated the alarm sounded in the Vatican instruction.

He said bishops from the more developed Western countries that “gladly have recourse to the easy solution of staffing their parishes with African, Asian or Latin American priests” were not paying heed to “the possible harm this can cause” the priests’ dioceses of origin – that is, stripping them of needed ministerial resources.

“Some dioceses in Africa and Asia have a third or even half of their diocesan clergy in other countries, for financial reasons. I know of one that has 83 priests abroad, while within the country evangelization is stagnating,” he lamented.

The cardinal’s bottom line, however, got to the theological and ecclesiological heart of the matter:

“A community that fails to find the ministers it needs among its own people must reflect on the causes of this situation and the proper remedies, such as the pastoral care of families and vocations, and appreciation of lay ministry,” he said.

There are even more possible remedies than the ones the cardinal suggested, of course. And they should be carefully discerned – with the aim of assuring that the Church’s ministers should found among its already established communities.

It doesn’t take a lot of “pastoral creativity” – to use a phrase dear to Pope Francis – to figure this one out. In fact, the pope has already suggested a way…

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