On Father’s Day, many Catholics take time to say a kind word to priests – their spiritual fathers. Might I suggest that this Father’s Day, a special word of gratitude be extended to those priests from foreign countries – India, Poland, Philippines, India, Nigeria and other nations – who are working in Canadian parishes, hospitals, prisons and universities? To extend the familial metaphor, they have become fathers to Canadian Catholics left orphaned by our own lack of priestly vocations.
It’s hard to overstate the catastrophic decline in priestly vocations. A senior Holy See diplomat, intimately familiar with the Canadian situation, once reported a devastating statistic: In one recent year there were more bishops in Canada than there were seminarians.
“A Church where there are as many bishops as seminarians is dead,” he told me. By that standard, if not dead, the Church in Canada is at least in intensive care.
Of course, the Church is never truly dead. Never dead because the Church is Christ, who is always alive in His Church. Never dead because the Church universal is always able to come to the aid of local churches in distress. It has always been thus. But while in previous generations those places with abundant priestly vocations sent forth missionaries to give birth to the faith in new lands, today vibrant churches are sending missionary priests to countries of long Christian tradition – to resuscitate the dead.
There are signs of hope in Canada to be sure. But it is sobering to think of how dire our straits are.
Last week, I was in my hometown of Calgary for the ordination of a fine young man. There were so many Indian priests at the reception that one wondered why they were not serving samosas and sorpotel. I was told that there are 22 Indian priests serving in the diocese of Calgary, 10 of them from my own ancestral home of Goa.
Indeed, if you count the sons of immigrants in addition to the foreign nationals serving in Canada, there are precious few Canadian priests under 60 from families who have been in Canada for generations. In the United States, one third of all new priests ordained in 2011 were foreign born themselves.
In my own diocese of Kingston, the majority (5 of 8) of the new pastors in our most recent clergy appointments are from abroad, three from Nigeria and two from Poland.
Last week in Ottawa, I bumped into, of all people, Cardinal Telesphore Toppo from India.
“What brings you to Canada, your Eminence?” I asked.
“I am visiting my priests who are working here,” he replied. Of course.
The dearth of priestly vocations is compounded by a more delicate problem, namely the quality of those already ordained. I don’t mean zeal or holiness or intelligence, but simply the basic virtue and mental health to continue in the priesthood. In our own Archdiocese of Kingston, to take one example, we have had about 15 ordinations in the last 15 years. That’s not enough to keep pace with retirements, but not insignificant in a small diocese. Yet over the same period, ten priests have left active ministry. Out of respect for privacy, the reasons always remain murky and in some cases unknown, but we have lost priests to moral turpitude, the desire to abandon their freely-made promise of celibacy, mental instability or accusations of abuse. We ought not to lament their departure in all cases. Some were tormented souls for whom the priesthood constituted a heroic burden they were unable to bear. Others were a cancer corrupting the Church from within. For the latter, it’s better that they would leave or be forced out sooner rather than later.
When retirements are considered, the picture becomes more bleak still. In many dioceses, Kingston among them, retired priests are called upon to serve as substitutes for Sunday Masses in various parishes. Even after a lifetime of generous service, these priests are asked to continue their work.
In the Archdiocese of Halifax this year, priests have been called out of retirement to look after parishes on a fulltime basis. Yet as the retired cohort goes from their 70s to their 80s, the burden of years and ill health reduces their numbers and capacity. The day is already here when, especially in rural parishes, there is simply no priest to cover in the absence of the pastor.
Consequently the orderly management of decline has become the primary priority of many dioceses, reduced services, amalgamated parishes, closed churches. It’s bad, and would be far worse but for the foreign priests who have come to help us.
To our brothers from abroad – thank you.