In an interview with the Comboni Missionaries’ Spanish magazine, Mundo Negro, published on January 13, 2023, Pope Francis emphasized that evangelization should be the main interest for missionaries being sent from the Global South to the North. As many Western dioceses are faced with fewer vocations, they gladly welcome religious from the “peripheries” of the world. However, these movements can sometimes be influenced by other interests.
In the interview, published in the context of Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo at the end of January, the Pontiff emphasized that this reverse missionary current from the South to the North “is an exchange that helps, but it must be carried out with great prudence,” so as to not become “vocational trafficking.”
“We cannot exploit the ‘raw material’ from the countries of the mission, and this would be a bad way to carry out the mission in the West. […] We have to take care of the freedom to evangelize and not other types of interests,” the Pontiff said.
Many Western countries have seen a decrease in the number of vocations in the last decades, which has resulted in a lack of priests in certain regions. For example, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate the number of priests in the USA has decreased by 41% in the last 50 years. In 1970 there were around 59,000 priests in the country, while in 2021 there were less than 35,000. The number of Catholics has instead increased, from 54.1 million to 73.2 million.
In the interview with Mundo Negro, Pope Francis cited “five places: Belgium, Holland, Spain, Ireland and Quebec,” which “filled the world with missionaries” and today have few vocations.
To address this prevailing issue, many Western dioceses have established relations with other nations, primarily in the Global South, who may have younger and more dynamic Churches with higher numbers of vocations.
The geographical distribution of the clergy
For example, when the Diocese of Superior in rural Wisconsin was struggling to serve its faithful, who were spread out across 103 parishes in 16,000 square miles, it began building relations with certain Indian dioceses. In 2021 they used funds from the United States Bishops’ Conference to institute an orientation program to help these international priests get accustomed to living in Wisconsin. In the fall of 2021, more than 40% of the priests in the diocese were from Ghana and India.
Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay, said in a 2019 interview with Zenit that he believed there should be a “a universal sharing of priests.” He was speaking in the context of the Amazon Synod, held in October 2019, as one of the main topics of discussion was how to address the lack of priests to serve this vast area.
Cardinal Gracias cited several Asian countries, such as Vietnam, the Philippines and also his native India, as places that have enough vocations and can thus help dioceses in other areas of the world which face a shortage of priests. His statements reflect the “missionary current,” mentioned in the Mundo Negro interview, which has brought priests from the Global South to the North.
However, in Pope Francis’ post-synod apostolic exhortation, Querida Amazonia, he also highlighted another issue. He urged bishops to be “generous in encouraging those who display a missionary vocation to opt for the Amazon region.” He explained in a footnote that “in some countries of the Amazon Basin, more missionaries go to Europe or the United States than remain to assist their own Vicariates in the Amazon region.”
In fact, a 2019 Crux article reported that Europe held 42% of all priests, while having 23% of the world’s Catholic population.
The Pope’s comments highlight that the distribution of the clergy across the world’s regions is not always even. This thus explains his call to “prudence” when sending missionaries abroad.
Avoid “vocational trafficking”
In the interview with Mundo Negro, Pope Francis also applauded a 1994 decision by the Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, where they decided to stop religious congregations who did not have homes in the country from coming to look for vocations there. This had led to a type of “vocational trafficking,” the Pontiff described.
“The word ‘trafficking’ is a harsh word, but we must be very careful with this spirit of human promotion that is not always identified with vocation,” the Pontiff warned. “We have cases, especially of girls, who come here as religious, are not prepared, do not have a missionary vocation and end up on the street.”
Pope Francis also addressed this issue in his 2016 Apostolic Constitution on women’s contemplative life, Vultum dei Quaerere. “Even though the establishment of international and multicultural communities is a sign of the universality of the charism, the recruitment of candidates from other countries solely for the sake of ensuring the survival of a monastery is to be absolutely avoided,” he wrote.
The economic aspects
The economic benefits of sending missionaries abroad is also an important aspect, which, however, can work as a double-edged sword.
For example, a priest in another country can send a part of his salary back to his home diocese. The guidelines of the Diocese of Munster in Germany, for instance, say that foreign priests are allowed to send a monthly donation of a maximum €400 (around $432) to their home territory. This could be extremely valuable in a country with a weaker currency.
Additionally foreign priests can help foster relationships between wealthier Churches and less advantaged dioceses. A 2019 BBC article explained how Indian priests were mitigating the shortage of pastors in the Irish Diocese of Killaloe. Father Rexon Chullickal explained that he was touched when his parishioners raised €2100 (around $2278) for his home Diocese of Cochin (India), which had been badly affected by monsoon rains. “I did not ask them to do this,” he told the BBC.
These economic relationships can be helpful to dioceses in poorer parts of the world. However, they can also become a negative driving factor for sending missionaries abroad. As Pope Francis highlighted in his interview to Mundo Negro the primary interest should be the “freedom to evangelize.”