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Vol 41 No 4

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Terry A. Veling

Richard Lennan

Mark O'Brien OP

Marie Turner

Kerrie Hide

Desmond O'Donnell OMI


Kevin Mark


'International priests' and the mission of the Church



IN RECENT YEARS, there has been a significant shift in both the demographics and role of priests who were ordained outside Australia, but who minister within the Catholic Church in Australia. The use of ‘shift’ in the previous sentence underscores the fact that overseas-ordained priests have always constituted an element of our local church. Indeed, present trends represent the third phase or mode of that presence.

Painting with broad strokes, we could say that the first phase began with priests who ministered to convicts, includes the pioneering English Benedictine monks, and extends to the large contingent of Irish clergy, whose considerable influence on the development of Australian parochial life ranged from the nineteenth century through to the 1960s. At the heart of the second phase, are ‘migrant chaplains’, the priests who accompanied or followed the waves of immigrants who came to Australia after the Second World War. While the presence of ‘expat’ priests serving particular ethnic groups was not unknown in earlier years—witness the Austrian Jesuits who accompanied winegrowers to the Clare Valley in the 1850s—and continues even today, the introduction to Australia of congregations such as the Scalabrinians has an intimate association with post-war immigration.

Inseparable from the third phase, which began, perhaps, no more than a decade ago, is a phrase that is also of comparatively recent origin: ‘the shortage of priests’. The invocation of that phrase helps to identify a general assumption about the third phase: that priests from overseas who are ministering in Australian parishes today are meeting a need produced by the decline in the number of ‘local’ clergy. There is, then, a widespread conviction that inviting priests from overseas to minister in Australia is necessary in order to maintain the priestly presence in parishes at a level equal to what has been customary in the lived memory of older Catholics.

In addition to that new rationale, this latest period also differs from the previous two eras in the origin of the priests involved. Thus, many of the new wave of priests come from India or from nations within Asia or Africa. While these countries have begun to be a source of immigrants to Australia, the priests are not working exclusively, even primarily, with ethnic communities, but in ‘mainstream’ parishes in dioceses across Australia.

While it is too early to propose a definitive account of this new phenomenon, both the numbers involved, which are increasing, and the challenges that the experience raises make the topic one that already invites theological reflection. For this paper, the key hermeneutic principle guiding that reflection is ‘mission’.

Since the Australian experience has similarities with what is happening in parts of Europe and North America, it is likely that reflection from another context might cast some light on our own. Accordingly, the next section of this paper will summarise the findings of International Priests in America: Challenges and Opportunities (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006). This book, written by Dean Hoge and Aniedi Okure, is both a qualitative and quantitative study of priests from Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, referred to collectively as ‘international priests’, who have moved to the United States in recent years. The number of such priests ministering in American parishes is so significant, that the authors claim: ‘In this new century, Nigeria and India will be the equivalent of Ireland in the early twentieth century as a provider of priests. We are entering a new era in world Catholicism’ [International Priests, 32].

The study canvasses the response that the priests have received from parishioners and fellow-priests, as well as the international priests’ perception of that response. The study also identifies questions that this new phenomenon raises for the church at large. While there are differences between the American and Australian trends, especially the vast number and particular needs of Hispanic Catholics in America, the following section will indicate resonances that Hoge and Okure’s work has with the Australian story.




One of the noteworthy aspects of the American study is the authors’ exegesis of ‘the shortage of priests’. That phrase, they argue, is susceptible of at least three interpretations: first, a statistical one that indicates the number of Catholics per priests; secondly, the perception, even feeling, of Catholics in one area that a shortage exists, which reflects the experience of a past situation of more priests; thirdly, not having enough priests to do what is required [International Priests, 34]. Ironically, under the first criterion, the shortage of priests is far more significant in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, areas that are sources of the international priests, than in the United States and Europe. Similarly, under the third criterion, Nigeria, Ghana, and India, have a greater shortage than does the United States because the possibilities for evangelisation are far more significant in those countries than in America. That leaves, then, the second criterion, subjective feelings, as the one that exerts most influence on American Catholics to fuel their sense of a shortage [International Priests, 34]. It is likely that this situation has an exact parallel with what applies in Australia.

Another background issue that the study addresses is the language used to refer to the priests coming to work in America. The authors note that the priests themselves find offensive references to ‘importing priests’, which can suggest either that they are second-rate when compared to ‘home-grown’ clergy or that they are drawn by the desire for money. At the other end of the scale in terms of language is the description of the priests as ‘missionaries’, who have come to spread the Gospel from countries that previously received missionaries. A focus on the latter term suggests that any reluctance to accept the ministry of the international priests is likely to express xenophobia, even racism [International Priests, 36-7]. The use of ‘international priests’ has the advantage of being neutral in terms of motive, while identifying the origin of the priests. In Australian usage, the most common term seems to be ‘priests from overseas’, which, like the American term, puts the emphasis on geographical origin and implies no evaluation of motives or abilities.

At the heart of Hoge and Okure’s analysis is the recognition that cultural issues exert the most significant impact on both the perception that the international priests have of themselves and on the reception of their ministry in America by parishioners and other priests. The authors note that those Americans, including priests, who approached the advent of an international priest with the attitude ‘a priest is a priest is a priest’, especially when considered primarily in the context of providing opportunities for the celebration of the Eucharist, came to realise that the impact of cultural differences was greater than they had anticipated (International Priests, 44-5). While such differences were significant, assessments of them were often positive:

Bringing in an international priest introduces the possibility of breathing new spirit into parish life. The priest may preach differently, teach differently, introduce new music, experiment with new programs, or portray a different spirituality (International Priests, 47).

Although the book acknowledges the enrichment that can flow from the presence of the international priests, the authors also list a considerable number of difficulties experienced in parishes where the priests minister. Briefly summarised, those difficulties involve language, cultural misunderstandings, conflicting ecclesiologies, concerns about fundraising by international priests, and the shyness of the international priests in mixing with other priests. Of a different order was the claim that bringing priests to America was an irrational deployment of the world’s priestly resources in an age when there were more urgent needs elsewhere. From yet another framework came the objection that bringing in priests in significant numbers postpones both the needed restructuring of existing forms of parish leadership and efforts to develop more vocations at the local level (International Priests, 51-8).

For the international priests themselves, equality of treatment, or, to phrase it more accurately, inequality of treatment, aroused particular concern. A key issue was appointments: the priests often reported a sense that they were assigned where no-one else was willing to go, that their qualifications were not respected, and that there was no expectation that their ministry would be effective (International Priests, 87-91).

A consistent finding of the book’s surveys is that the likelihood of a positive response to the experience of international priests working in America depended on the development of cultural sensitivity by both the priests themselves and by those among whom they minister. The authors suggest that the introduction of the international priests is most likely to go well when there has been extensive preparation, especially in language, before the priests left their home country and substantial orientation to their new situation. Similar extensive preparation must also take place with those who are to receive the priests. In addition, clear protocols guiding the action of bishops at both ends of the process, and the willingness by American dioceses to support the priests’ local church of origin were also important to convey the sense that the process of bringing in international priests was not simply a business transaction (International Priests, 81-3; 123-24).

A further issue that the book canvases is whether it is preferable for American dioceses to sponsor seminarians, who would study in the United States prior to ordination, rather than priests. Most of those surveyed indicate a preference for the seminarian option, on the grounds of long-term inculturation. There was, however, a widespread recognition that the drop-out rate in American seminaries for students who were not born in America is double that of locally-born seminarians (International Priests, 103). Underpinning that fact seems to be both a lack of acceptance of the foreign-born students and the difficulties that those students have in making the requisite cultural adjustments to their new situation.

Despite the advantages of having seminarians study in situ, the book notes that the American bishops prefer to engage foreign-born priests rather than seminarians. The reason given for that preference is instructive:

The bishops simply cannot wait! They need priests now, and they cannot wait four or more years while the seminarians are studying. The haste solves one problem but brings another: the priests brought here hurriedly often suffer from a too-quick orientation (International Priests, 103).

One of the book’s conclusions is that, although the presence of international priests has always aroused tensions in the American church, even when the priests came primarily from Ireland, contemporary tensions have a unique character:

...the international priests today are more visible and more exotic…the priests come from developing nations that are now experiencing rapid Catholic growth—nations poor economically, but, from one perspective, rich spiritually. Americans today take pride in their national wealth and leadership, and as a result wonder, often subconsciously, if Africans or Asians really have anything worthwhile to say to them. This is a subtle ethnocentricity that irritates priests from the developing world. The international priests, in turn, take pride in the Catholic growth in their homelands and subconsciously feel that they have a deeper spirituality (International Priests, 122).

A further conclusion is that the issues of culture are abiding ones. One such issue is whether it is legitimate to expect that the international priests should approximate as far as possible to ‘American’ ways of doing things, including the style of liturgical celebration, or whether inculturation allows for variety rather than uniformity. In other words, could the liturgy be celebrated in American parishes in ways that reflect the culture of origin of the priests as much as the expectations of American parishioners that they will see themselves and their culture reflected in the liturgy? For the priests themselves, the right to hold on to what had shaped their identity, including their liturgical experience, was a significant matter (International Priests, 122).

In addition to canvassing the issues that influence the reception and effectiveness of international priests, the authors also make a determination about the degree to which the presence of the international priests can affect what many Americans regard as their major pastoral need:

The priest shortage in the United States (defined in terms of lay expectations about priests) cannot be solved through bringing in international priests. The numbers are too low and the difficulties too great. International priests provide only a partial alleviation (International Priests, 123).



As will be clear from the Hoge-Okure study, there are many points of contention around the phenomenon of international priests. From a theological perspective, a key question is whether ‘mission’ represents the most appropriate caption under which to consider international priests. This section of the paper will explore that question, noting the complexities that are inseparable from it.

The international priests themselves are likely to endorse the aptness of ‘mission’: the priests have left their own country for the insecurity of a new environment and have done so to exercise their ministry among people whom they hope will welcome and benefit from that ministry. Understandably, therefore, the priests might well see themselves as missionaries, have an expectation that the particular traditions of spirituality, liturgy, and pastoral practice that they bring will enrich those who receive them, and expect that their generosity and commitment in coming to a new country will be respected and valued. As a corollary, the priests are also likely to resent any questioning of either their motives or capacities, and to find offensive any tendency to treat them as second-class members of the presbyterate.

For those who receive the priests, on the other hand, it might be puzzling to find that ‘mission’ is regarded as an appropriate category to apply to their situation. ‘After all’, so the argument might go, ‘are not the priests coming into a stable diocesan and parish environment? Are they doing anything other than continuing what a ‘local’ priest would do, if there were enough of the latter to meet our needs? Surely ‘mission’, which suggests the need for the Gospel to be preached where it has not been heard previously, does not apply to us? All we need is someone to ensure that we can still have 10.00am Mass every Sunday’.

That style of response not only indicates why there can be tensions between the expectations of the international priests and the people who are to receive them, it also helps to locate the fabled ‘elephant in the living room’ that affects this discussion. It is difficult to consider international priests under the caption ‘mission’, or to see the phenomenon as an expression of the ‘world-church’, while there remains the perception that they are engaged only to compensate for the ‘shortage of priests’.

Buttressing this perception in the American context, as the Hoge-Okure study notes, is the fact that most of the international priests who go to the United States are diocesan clergy, not religious and certainly not from explicitly missionary congregations. In other words, the priests involved are not only familiar with stable structures, rather than the more ‘frontier’ forms of ministry in which religious priests often engage, but they are also recruited to work in established American parishes. This suggests that the bishops who invite the international priests are seeking to maintain the status quo as closely as possible (International Priests, 37). It is likely that a similar comment could apply to the Australian context.

There is, then, an urgent need to clarify why dioceses seek to attract international priests. While it might be valid to claim that the priestly ministry of Word and sacrament is always missionary in a broad sense, that it never lacks an evangelical dimension, it would be disingenuous of local churches to underscore the missionary element if ‘numbers’ alone provided the primary motivation for the decision to invite international priests.

Mission and meeting needs can, of course, be mutually inclusive: the ministry of an international priest in a parish can be a catalyst for a renewed reception of the Gospel and commitment to mission by the parish as a whole. For such an outcome to be a realistic possibility, rather than a pious velleity, it must be explicitly adopted and pursued. It also requires ‘conscientisation’ about the universal call to mission that is inherent in baptism and about the connection between that call and the sacramental and pastoral life of a parish. None of that will happen, however, if bishops and parishioners perceive the priest as someone who is plugging a gap.

The advent of an international priest, then, ought not to be regarded as simply ensuring the maintenance of ‘business as usual’, unless, of course, the ‘usual’ is already understood in terms of the primacy of mission. Indeed, there is a danger that, without a renewed sense of mission, dioceses and parishes will, at least implicitly, fall into the trap of consumerism in regard to the international priests: we can afford to bring priests from overseas and we use them not only to ensure that we have what we need, but that we are left undisturbed in the process. In that environment, the language of ‘mission’ becomes meaningless.

 Even the willingness to focus on ‘mission’, however, is not sufficient to ensure that the introduction of international priests is a blessing for all involved. As the American study reveals, sensitivity and the willingness to learn are also required, from both the priests themselves and those who are to receive them.

For the priests, it is important to understand that both the civil and ecclesial culture into which they are moving can be a source of enrichment and learning for them, can reveal that the inculturation of faith has many faces. In other words, as contemporary writing on missiology emphasises, mission does not involve the missionary writing on blank sheets. Applied to Australia, this would suggest that Australian culture, the challenges of secularism not withstanding, is not necessarily ‘godless’ when compared to other nations, even when the latter display more obvious and traditional forms of religiosity.

Similarly, the fact that the structures of ministry in the church in Australia embrace women and men who are not ordained, that the ordained are subject to high standards of accountability, and that the members of the church at large have an expectation of involvement in decisions that affect their lives, does not necessarily amount to either a lack of respect for the ordained ministry or to the corruption of the church by ‘the evils of liberal democracy’. Unless, therefore, the international priests are able to value the possible gifts in such circumstances, there is a danger that they will not ‘meet’ the people who are to receive them. This generates forms of resentment that parallel what the priests themselves can feel when they believe that their background and experience are neither respected nor valued.

As already noted, those who are to receive international priests might be surprised, even shocked, to learn that anyone could regard them as a mission field. Nonetheless, the advent of an international priest can be an opportunity for parishes to recognise anew the centrality of mission. To do so, however, does require the willingness to open our own cultural narrowness to conversion, to accept that other forms of spirituality and understandings of ecclesial life can challenge and enrich us. In short, as a commentator notes in the Hoge-Okure study, those among whom the international priests work might learn that to be a missionary church is not only to send, but also to receive (International Priests, 126).

In addition, if the local churches that receive international priests wish to indicate that by so doing they are manifesting a commitment to the missionary nature of the church, there are a number of possibilities open to them. One way, prominent, as noted, in the Hoge-Okure study, is to support the international priests’ church of origin in its local work of mission and evangelisation. While so doing could remain merely an impersonal dispersal of funds, it could also offer an opportunity to become aware of the needs of other local churches and to share a sense of mission. Indeed, it could even be that ‘the receiving church’ might decide to share some of its own priests with the international priests’ church of origin. Such an action would be the ultimate proclamation that the reception of international priests intends something more than bolstering numbers.




The phenomenon of international priests will surely continue to be a feature of the church in Australia and other countries. In order for it to be an experience that enriches all those involved, local churches must continue both to be alert to the questions that it raises and to discern, communally, responses to those questions.

This paper has focused on the theme of ‘mission’ as the most important of those questions. A more exhaustive treatment of ‘mission’ in the context of local churches in Australia would need to emphasise also the promotion of local vocations to both ordained and other forms of ministry. In short, it is important to underscore that international priests can be an aspect of the local church’s response to contemporary pastoral challenges, not a ‘magic bullet’.


Richard Lennan is a priest of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and teaches theology at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.