BY MAURIZIO PETTENA
There are surveys which suggest that 90 per cent of Catholic priests are happy in their job, but yet some recent media on the subject would suggest that we are in an insurmountable crisis of faith in this country.
Much of the criticism aimed at the Catholic Church, sometimes from within its ranks, is aimed at those who appear to ignore the decline in vocations, and try to patch up the problem with foreign clergy who cannot acculturate.
Indeed, it cannot be denied that the Catholic Church in Australia is in need of pastoral workers at various levels, due to an increase in Catholic populations. The Catholic Church in Australia is more significantly impacted by migration than most. As such, Bishops are responding to this need in a way that is possible for our time, and in a way which has already brought unforeseen gifts.
I am one of those overseas priests and I wish to comment on this from my experience and knowledge of working extensively with migrant communities. I have worked in Australia for over 20 years as a migrant chaplain and a parish priest as a member of a missionary order of priests.
My duty as the Director of the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee office is among other things to liaise with the Department of Immigration on the Labour Agreement which allows us to bring to Australia priests, sisters, brothers and lay pastoral workers from overseas. These people are volunteering to come to this country as missionaries and many of them have become pastors who are deeply loved by their congregations.
This is not new to Australia. We have always had missionary priests coming to Australia from countries such as Ireland to help in building the universal Church. In the Catholic tradition, we have priests who are called fide donum, literally, a gift of faith. These priests are present as missionaries, interacting pastorally with an ever increasing multicultural Church, visible in practically every country of the world.
There are many gifts that come from this, including the privilege of welcoming people who come from thriving Catholic communities. The international and multicultural flavour this brings and the revitalisation of the liturgy can be seen in hundreds of parishes across this country.
The parochial attitudes of those who see bringing foreign clergy to this country as a bandaid solution, rather than an immense gift and possibility for renewal, are as much responsible for the decline in faith of Australians as the Bishops they seek to blame.
It is my view that negative views of the migrant priest phenomenon, which is that Bishops “import” from overseas out of desperation; whereas in many ways I believe it should be seen as a sign of the Bishops’ commitment to providing for the Catholic faithful.
Vocations are not growing in Australian dioceses for many reasons, and there is a need for careful reflection on this – but we also need to remember that we are a universal Church which cannot seek to limit the cultural background of its clergy due to lack of understanding.
The harm we do in showing frankly racist attitudes toward those who have come here in generosity is extremely upsetting. We can take a more positive role in helping these migrant priests to get used to Australian culture, but instead, we simply criticise them for being “ignorant, tribal or patriarchal.”
It is true that sometimes it takes migrant clergy time to adjust to life in this country. Just as it takes awhile for migrants to learn another language, there are cultural norms that will be unfamiliar. Often, clergy and religious that come here are placed too soon into communities extremely different to their own. But the immense benefits of learning from one another and growing together in the liturgy and ministry of the Church may be just what this country needs.
We really owe an apology to all of the overseas priests who have laid down their lives to come here and serve for the criticism that is often aimed at them. We have always had foreign clergy in this country, whether it be the early Irish missionaries right through to migrant chaplains that selflessly serve the migrant communities in our nation, which at this moment in our history make up the majority of practising Catholics.
Father Maurizio Pettena CS is the Director of the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office. He was recently appointed to the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Refugees.
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