ROME – Pope Francis made a surprise visit to a parish on the northwestern edge of Rome on Thursday, after pulling the plug at the last minute on a trip to another parish on the side of town where the unfortunate pastor had announced the pope’s plans on Facebook two days earlier, thereby creating a security situation judged as untenable.

The visit was part of a “school of prayer” called for by Pope Francis in preparation for the jubilee year of 2025, and took place in an open-air courtyard in Rome’s Palmarola neighborhood since St. Bridget’s Parish, which hosted the pontiff, currently doesn’t have a church building and holds Mass in a garage.

One interesting footnote to the visit is the way in which it neatly captured the demography of Catholicism in today’s Italy: While the small crowd of parishioners was almost entirely white and ethnically Italian, the pastor and associate pastor at St. Bridget’s are Congolese and Cameroonian, respectively, both missionary priests who belong to the Spiritan Fathers, formally known as the Congregation of the Holy Spirit.

Father Guy Léandre Nakavoua-Londhet, from Congo Brazzaville, arrived in Italy in 2005. In a 2019 interview, he said that when first disembarked in Rome, he didn’t speak a single word of Italian.

When he was ordained, Nakavoua-Londhet explained, his community asked him to list his top choices for a missionary assignment, and he picked Gabon, Mexico and Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean. Instead they dispatched him to Italy, where he’s served as the pastor at St. Bridget’s ever since.

His associate pastor, Father Francis Tchantcho, is a 40-year-old from Douala in Cameroon who was ordained in 2017, and who’s served at St. Bridget for a year after an earlier missionary stint in Turin in northern Italy.

Nakavoua-Londhet and Tchantcho are representative of the changing face of the priesthood in Italy, which is increasingly dependent on foreign-born clergy.

Once upon a time, Italy was a great exporter of missionaries to the rest of the world. Today, however, according to data from the Italian bishops’ conference, for every one Italian priest serving abroad, there are five foreign-born priests with assignments in Italy.

In 2023, there were 1,476 foreign-born diocesan priests in Italy, 790 of whom were in pastoral work and 686 were students. Those numbers were buoyed by 1,336 religious order priests who also hold diocesan assignments, such as Nakavoua-Londhet and Tchantcho, which brought the total of foreign priests to 2,812, which is almost ten percent of all the Catholic priests in the country.

At the same time, in 2023 there were 282 Italian Donum Fidei priests serving in foreign countries.

Overall, the total number of priests in Italy has fallen by almost twenty percent from 1990, but the number of foreign-priests has soared by tenfold over the last thirty years, rising from a baseline of just 204 in 1990.

Of the 790 foreign-born diocesan priests in Italy in 2023, bishops’ conference data suggested that 407 were from Africa, 134 from Eastern Europe, 164 from Asia and 85 from the Americas, mostly Latin America.

Father Giuseppe Pizzoli, a bishops’ conference official who’s responsible for overseeing agreements between Italian dioceses and dioceses in other countries for priest assignments, said that in theory these agreements are limited to nine years and can’t be renewed, with the idea being that eventually the foreign-born priest will return to service in his home country.

That rule, however, sometimes is more honored in the breach than the observance, Pizzoli said.

“After nine years in Italy, some foreign priests have a hard time going back to their countries, and even the bishop in Italy doesn’t really want to see them go because, in the meantime, they’ve adapted well and acquired important roles and responsibilities,” he said.

Overall, Pizzoli said, 398 diocesan priests from other countries have become incardinated in Italian dioceses since the bishops’ conference started tracking the data.

The trend is not without controversy, given that in general, priest shortages tend to be more acute in the developing world than in the West. In Europe, for instance, there’s one priest for every 1,700 Catholics, but in Africa that ratio is 1 to 5,700, or roughly five times worse.

In some quarters, there’s concern that affluent local churches in the global north are exploiting poorer churches in the south, draining away clergy to fill perceived holes abroad when they’re actually more needed at home.

That was the gist, for instance, of a 2001 document from the Vatican’s then-Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, led at the time by Slovenian Cardinal Jozef Tomko, who objected to the growing trend of importing priests from the developing world into Italy.

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