OXFORD, England — Catholic bishops in Africa have voiced concern about a growing number of priests who fail to return home after training or ministering in Europe, in violation of Church norms.
“Many priests respect agreements by coming back after working in Europe, but we’re concerned about those who don’t,” said Father Emmanuel Wohi Nin, general secretary of the bishops’ conference in Ivory Coast.
“Some Western bishops, lacking priests of their own, are allowing this to happen and saying nothing when our clergy stay on. We need solutions on both sides,” the priest told Catholic News Service Sept. 8.
A firm agreement is needed among bishops’ conferences on rules and procedures for African priests in Europe, he said. The problem was raised by Bishop Ignace Bessi Dogbo of Katiola, president of the Ivory Coast bishops’ conference, at a July meeting with his French counterpart, Archbishop Georges Pontier of Marseille, and is expected to be discussed again in an upcoming visit by a French delegation to Ivory Coast.
“While it’s true we have plenty of vocations and a vibrant popular religiosity, this doesn’t necessarily mean our faith is stronger. We still have a lot of work of our own to do in building up our church communities,” Wohi Nin said.
“Some priests are in Europe without their bishop’s permission, while others have obtained consent but not done what was agreed, often taking nonpastoral jobs,” said Father Ralph Madu, general secretary of the Nigerian bishops’ conference.
“There are limits to what any bishop can do when it comes to disobedient clergy, but so many are now missing that we must face up to the issue,” he said.
Nigeria’s bishops are willing to help European dioceses that are short of priests, but this readiness to cooperate depends on a clear understanding between Church leaders, Madu said.
Nigerian priests have also been sent to other African countries, including Liberia and Zimbabwe, and some run official chaplaincies for African communities in Britain and Italy, he said.
“So far, we haven’t faced any drastic clergy shortage in Nigeria, since we have vocations in good numbers. But not all our dioceses have an equal supply of priests, and some already have empty parishes,” he said.
African clergy have traveled to Europe routinely for studies or pastoral assignments for more than 60 years. However, in a 2001 instruction, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples warned that those who refused to return would be “punished with an appropriate penalty.” The congregation is the Vatican department responsible for missionary work and the more than 1,090 mission dioceses in the world.
The instruction said the wish of some clergy “to leave their own country and reside in Europe or North America” had become a prevalent trend, often “based on the higher living conditions which these countries offer.”
The problem of missing priests is worst in African countries with a history of conflict, Father Lazarus Anondee, general secretary of the Ghanaian bishops’ conference, told CNS Sept. 8, noting that most Ghanaian clergy confine their foreign studies to Rome.
Wohi Nin said the problem of absent clergy would be debated by the bishops’ conferences of West Africa at a May 2019 assembly in Burkina Faso.
“It’s the first time the issue is being openly talked about, and the solutions will clearly need input from bishops in both continents,” he said.
“Whatever the circumstances, the nonreturn of a priest harms his fundamental relationship with his diocese and pastor-bishop,” Archbishop Dominique Lebrun of Rouen, who heads a French Church working group on “priests from abroad,” was quoted as saying by France’s Catholic La Croix.
In France, 1,800 foreign priests — mostly from France’s former African colonies — are officially ministering, according to the French bishops’ conference website. French-born diocesan clergy have dropped by 40 percent in a decade to 11,500, with 105 ordinations expected during 2018 across the country’s 97 dioceses.
In Italy, up to 40 percent of parishes are run by foreign-born clergy, while Church leaders in Poland have said they may also seek clergy from India, Vietnam and the Philippines to make up for falling vocations.