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Our Father, Who Art From Overseas

One of the strategies to address the priest shortage is to import priests from overseas. The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference is considering guidelines for this at their current meeting. But will this address the problem? Depends, on what you see is the real problem...

by Jane Anderson

As the supply of priests decreases throughout our Australian church, some dioceses look overseas, sometimes to European countries, but more frequently to third world countries to bolster clerical ranks. While this goes on, there are growing numbers of Catholics who would much rather identify, nurture and encourage vocations from within their own faith communities. This of course presupposes discerning and incorporating a number of changes to the conditions for ordination.

In the meantime, local church leadership is attempting to regulate the phenomenon of overseas-born priests. In 2003, the National Commission for Clergy Life and Ministry began preparing a draft paper on guidelines for dioceses accepting these priests. These guidelines will be offered to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference in May 2005.

However, in some cases, the horse has already bolted. Estimates of overseas-born priests in some dioceses already exceed half the local priest population. These dioceses have subsequently seen a return to a more conservative church, resulting in conflict, confusion and the departure of some Catholics, disillusioned by clerical preservation, liturgical restorationism and pastoral insensitivity.

For those who believe that religious beliefs and practices should be uniformly moulded to Rome's prescriptions, overseas-born priests might present few problems. Their church, they assure us, is universal and is to be upheld by static beliefs, fixed structures and uniform practices.

Yet for other Catholics, the church is much more dynamic and complex. They accept universal or catholic ideals, but want them adapted and integrated in ways that are relevant to their particular situation. Such a church, they argue, is clearly the vision of the Second Vatican Council. A typical Catholic parish has always carried this range of responses, but these tensions can be exacerbated when overseas-born priests take up positions as parish priests.

Overseas-born priests often come from societies that have been ravaged by tyranny. They have suffered from the injustice of colonialism, some from a protracted and bloody struggle against communism, while non-democratic governments have persecuted others. Such societies suffer a range of abuses, from poverty and human rights abuse to the extremes of ethnocide. For these oppressed peoples, Catholicism provides an avenue for worshipping God and garnering much needed support from fellow-Catholics. Their Catholic practice also provides a religious and social ethos, which can produce a strong sense of cultural self, enabling them to repulse outside threats or incursions.

However, this strong cultural identity often prevents those in marginalised societies from attending to certain in-house injustices. In contrast to many Australians, these oppressed peoples have tended to leave unchallenged a patriarchy that features a social and familial system in which older males dominate others economically, sexually and culturally. Hence younger men are required to defer to their elders and women are generally expected to be docile and subservient. Those who can't or won't fit - including homosexual persons, unwed mothers, divorced persons, and anyone who seeks to challenge or resist patriarchy - are shamed or demonised.

Australians can look upon such discrimination and exclusion with dismay and consider such a social system unjust. Their alarm and concern increase when overseas-born priests bring that indiscriminate thinking and practice to Australian parishes.

The church's long association with colonialism adds to this complicated picture. Missionaries have been implicated in the subjugation of indigenous peoples; yet, they have also provided an effective bridge for select individuals to participate in the global community. By providing a Western education, medical care and other resources, these missionaries have encouraged the church to grow, enabling an indigenous clergy to emerge who sought to emulate the patronage and paternalism of their mentors. From the perspective of the missionaries, this growth was seen to be a sign of faith and commitment wherein priests identified with the tasks and toil of their people.

Nevertheless, for aspiring ordinands, priesthood was, and continues to be, an avenue for attaining social status and prestige; they secure not only a profession but also a future and acceptance from their Western confreres. Ordination ensures equality with all other priests and provides many privileges, such as the power of decision, economic resources and the rights of elderhood and Europeanhood. It is therefore not surprising that Nigeria, for example, has 6000 seminarians, most of whom are from poor villages.

In recent decades, some Catholics in Australia have become appalled by Western imperialism and the social, political and economic havoc that such domination has wreaked on third world countries. They also criticise the ongoing control exercised by industrialized countries and protest against modern forms of imperialism, such as unfair trade, the trade of armaments, military incursions and the giving of aid that is tied to economic exploitation. At the same time, these people resist and reject the excessive materialism and gross consumerism that is eroding Australia, a society that also tends to minimise the plight of its own minority groups, including the indigenous, the aged, and unemployed youth.

Thinking Catholics recognize the connections between imperialism and the triumphalism that still pervades Catholicism. They question, for example, the institution's patriarchal assumptions: priests may not marry and have children; women are to be excluded from leadership and decision-making roles; the divorced and re-partnered are to be denied Eucharist, and homosexual people are not to be involved in loving and sexual relationships. But such Catholics are no longer prepared to sacrifice the well-being of the individual for some perceived collective advantage.

However, the preference for an old triumphal Catholic Church has been socialised into significant numbers of overseas born priests from infancy. It is a view that they are conditioned to promote, often with the support of ethnic minorities, but at the expense of local culture and the local church's ongoing search for a relevant spirituality and justice in their own backyard.

There is evidence to suggest that overseas born priests from third world countries with their strong cultural identity and uncritical acceptance of Catholicism are generally not open to reform. Indeed, there is little incentive to change because they maintain their privileged position by upholding orthodoxy. Meanwhile, Australian Catholics, mostly without institutional power or little say in the running of parishes, look askance at how parish after parish can be taken over by conservative and unfamiliar leadership and hijacked by alien ideologies.

Thus, the writing is on the wall. If the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference adopts the guidelines for accepting overseas-born priests without making a move to address the problems of the current sexual and social organisation of our church, then we can only look forward to increased polarisation in our parishes and more dissenting, disenchanted but essentially voiceless Catholics.

Jane Anderson has previously written on the issue of overseas born priests. Her article "Which Priests For Our Church?" has been published in Compass: A Review of Topical Theology, 2003, Vol 37, pp. 24-28. An earlier version is also available on the following web-page: www.sedos.org/english/anderson.htm

She is the author of Priests in Love: Australian Catholic Clergy and Their Intimate Relationships, John Garratt Publishing

Acknowledgements: Thank you to Brian Gagen for editorial assistance and discussion.

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