Spiritual payback; Foreign priests want to fill need – if Americans let them

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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ENUGU, Nigeria – For generations of Nigerians, “missionary” was a synonym for “Irishman.”

Thousands of Irish Catholics left Europe for the wilds of Africa, braving heat and disease to bring the message of Christ to heathen animists.But today’s missionaries are working in the opposite direction. They’re native Nigerians who talk about healing the secular sickness of the West. And these Catholic Africans are crossing the oceans in unprecedented numbers to return the favor Western missionaries once paid them.

“They have a saying: ‘Africa has AIDS, but North America has theological AIDS,'” said Philip Jenkins, a professor of religious studies at Penn State who studies Christianity in developing nations. “‘Our continent’s being devastated by one thing. Yours is being devastated by another.'”

The growth of what scholars call “reverse mission” fits like a puzzle piece into another trend in the Western church: What was once a steady stream of young men being trained in the priesthood by American and European seminaries has slowed to a trickle. More parishes are going without priests – 3,100 in the U.S. last year, up from 500 in 1965. The men arriving from the developing world fill a need.

“The Europeans came to evangelize us, and we thank them for it,” said Casimir Osigwe, who is nearing his ordination as a Catholic priest. “Now it is our turn to evangelize them. We have something to give.”

Mr. Osigwe, 32, is finishing up his studies at Bigard Memorial Seminary in this eastern Nigerian city. It’s the largest Catholic seminary in the world, enrolling more than 1,000 young men.

Contrast that with the Diocese of Dallas’ Holy Trinity Seminary. Its current enrollment is 30.

“We in Nigeria are naturally religious,” said the Rev. John Okoye, Bigard’s rector. “The instinct is in our blood. We have a reverence of the unknown.”

Holy Trinity is by no means unusual for an American seminary. Young men in this country, for whatever reasons, largely don’t want to be priests any more. According to church statistics, the number of Catholics in America increased 29 percent during the papacy of John Paul II. But the number of priests dropped 26 percent. And a large number of the priests who remain are elderly, or baby boomers edging closer to retirement.

“If the trends continue this way, it’s obvious that the numbers will not meet up with the demand,” said the Rev. Michael Duca, Holy Trinity’s rector.

1 in 6 priests foreign

Church officials say there are two basic ways the priest shortage is being met. One is a reorganization of priestly duties – allowing laypeople to take over some of the duties traditionally assigned to priests, like church administration and certain ceremonial roles.

The other solution is importing priests from overseas.

About one of every six priests working in America today is foreign-born, a number that is steadily increasing. And while some of those are older men born in Catholic strongholds like Ireland or Poland, most come from developing countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, India, Colombia and Nigeria.

Most Nigerian priests come through Bigard, the enormous seminary that counts among its graduates Cardinal Francis Arinze, a top Vatican official and a man many considered one of the favorites in last month’s papal conclave.

Outside Bigard’s walls, piles of trash sit in the pitted street, and the jobless roam aimlessly. But inside its gates, Bigard is a quiet, ordered respite from Nigeria’s poverty. A modernist tan-and-green chapel, funded in part by gifts from Germany, rises from manicured lawns. Seminarians in long white robes shuffle from building to building. Students speak with pride about their soccer field, one of the city’s finest.

Bigard has no problems signing up young men; the difficulties come only in finding room for them all. In Igboland, as this part of Nigeria is known, the priesthood is considered the most prestigious line of work a young man can go into.

Traditional religious leaders were held in high regard before the Christian missionaries came, and that status transferred easily to priests when the population converted. “When the Irish came, they brought roads, electricity, schools,” said the Rev. Damian Nwankwo, a professor at Bigard. “People regarded them as visible gods.”

Priests ‘don’t lack’

When a young man is ordained in Igboland, it is tradition that his village collects money from its residents and buys him a car – an enormous gift in a poor nation. Priests can afford luxuries, like satellite television, that other Nigerians only dream of.

“When you are a priest, you don’t lack,” seminarian Tony Ezekwu said. “They have a high standard of living. People want that.”

The promise of status no doubt attracts some to the priesthood. And some see seminary more as a path to an education than a way to answer a spiritual calling. Their view is summed up in the comment of a young Bigard seminarian who said he was willing to be a parish priest when he’s ordained in a few months, “but what I really want to be is a professor.”

And while many priests come to America because they believe they can do good work, others come for more prosaic reasons. Dean Hoge, a sociology professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., estimates that a Nigerian priest’s buying power increases fivefold when he lands in America.

“What is their motivation for joining the priesthood?” he asks. “In the best and most noble case, they want to serve Jesus Christ. But maybe they also want to escape the farm. I’m sure both of those are there.”

Nigeria has shortage, too

For as bad as the priest shortage is in America, it’s far worse in many emerging countries with an exploding Catholic population – including some that are shipping priests right and left to the States.

Even with its drop in ordinations, the U.S. had one priest for every 1,375 Catholics in 2002. There was one for every 4,694 African Catholics.

That’s not news to priests in Nigeria. “We have almost 10,000 men and women and children in this parish,” said the Rev. Humphrey Ani of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Enugu. “There’s no way we can minister to them all. We need more priests, too.”

But the exodus continues, primarily for financial reasons, Dr. Hoge said: Poor nations simply can’t support the same number of priests as wealthier ones. Catholics in rich countries are better organized, he said, and do a better job of pressuring church leadership to hire more priests.

The Vatican has acknowledged some of these issues. In 2001, Cardinal Jozef Tomko of Slovakia, head of the church’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, wrote that the church must “counteract the prevalent trend of a certain number of diocesan priests 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.”

Cardinal Tomko said some African and Asian dioceses were sending most of their priests to work abroad, in part because they could not be supported financially in their native countries. He said Western nations “must never deprive young churches of these priests. … It is a matter of fairness and of ecclesial sense.”

‘Reminder … of the poor’

The young seminarians of Enugu speak of the West with what can only be described as missionary zeal. They speak out against materialism, individualism and creeping secularism. They say they can help put Catholics in touch with a spirituality that transcends the quest for wealth and social advancement.

“The state of the African world is a reminder to the church of the poor,” said Clement Emefu, a first-year theology student at the Spiritan International School of Theology, another seminary in Enugu. “In the States, people feel they have everything and they don’t need anything. Here, that you are lacking something reminds you of human need.”

Some Americans agree. “The African church is in touch with the raw elements of humanity: birth, marriage, death, hunger, thirst,” said Christopher Malloy, an assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas. “For me, in a comfortable house, it’s easy to think life is not dramatic. They bring the message to us with excitement.”

But that message does not always translate easily. Problems often begin with gaining entry to America. Tighter immigration standards after Sept. 11 have made it more difficult for some priests to get visas.

It’s also a struggle for American dioceses to check into a foreign priest’s background – a high priority for many church leaders in the wake of accusations of priestly misconduct.

“I need to make sure he’s the right person, and that can be difficult from so far away,” said Father Josef Vollmer-Konig, director of vocations for the Dallas Diocese. He said the diocese gets one or two requests each month from Nigerian priests wishing to work in the Dallas area, few of which are granted.

The difficulties continue upon arrival. White parishioners may be uncomfortable with a black priest. Some have trouble fighting through the accents.

“Americans aren’t very tolerant of these things,” said Dr. Hoge, co-author of a soon-to-be-published book on foreign-born priests.

He said some priests have trouble adjusting to the less exalted status American priests have – both in society and in their churches, where U.S. lay leaders often take on decision-making roles reserved for clergy in other countries.

The biggest adjustments are often ceremonial. Nigerian Masses can feature hours of singing, swaying and dancing. Western services are, well, dull in comparison.

“When I came here, I asked: If I was a layperson, would I be going to church at all?” said the Rev. Ernest Munachi Ezeogu, a Nigerian-born priest who now works in Toronto.

“The answer was no. There is no life, no joy. People come to fulfill a duty, not because they want to celebrate Christ.”

Father Ezeogu has tried changing things a bit: adding music, adding jokes to his homilies, trying to relate Scripture more directly to people’s lives. He’s also started a Web site where priests who want livelier homilies can download some of his.

He said the reaction has been positive. But not every Nigerian priest has had such luck.

The Rev. Joseph Offor, a parish priest in Enugu, did missionary work for several years in Germany.

Once, he said, a woman approached him before Mass and asked how long his sermon would be. “She said I should keep it to under four minutes.” (Nigerians are accustomed to homilies lasting an hour or more.)

“I ended up speaking for about 15 minutes,” he said. “She was very annoyed afterward. She said she would not come back, and she did not. It is a very different world there.”