“No more foreign priests, says bishop”. It’s a headline designed to make any diocesan communications officer choke on their morning coffee.
But according to a letter in the Universe this month, Bishop Ralph Heskett of Hallam has dared to wade into these potentially perilous waters by announcing that he won’t be recruiting foreign priests is not the only answer to the vocations crisis.
The author of the letter wrote: “In a bold and brave counter-cultural move Bishop Rawsthorne [the former Bishop of Hallam] dealt with a shortage of priests by recruiting them from Poland, India and Nigeria. However, our current bishop [said] that ‘something more radical is required’.”
The letter writer, W J Jenkinson, noted widespread church closures in the dioceses of Wrexham, Salford and Hallam. In the Diocese of Hallam, he said, priests from abroad were widely respected. He quoted a Nigerian priest who, upon being asked why he was here, said: “It’s payback time. The Irish missionaries brought us the faith and we are delighted to bring it back to the British Isles.”
Who can argue with this? Also, how do we expect people to avail themselves of the sacraments when there are not enough priests to administer them?
While Hallam diocese may be questioning further recruitment, metropolitan dioceses are not in a position to take any such steps. An estimated half of all priests serving the Archdiocese of Southwark were born overseas. Anyone familiar with the confessional queue at Westminster Cathedral will know that the chances of finding a foreign priest patiently waiting within is extremely high.
Then there’s the considerable issue of preserving our historic churches. St Ignatius church in Preston, which first opened in 1836, is a Grade II* listed building with an interior designed by Augustus Pugin, making it a treasured possession for the Diocese of Lancaster. But parishioners were left dismayed when the church was suddenly closed in 2014 due to a shortage of priests.
Providentially, Bishop Michael Campbell received a letter some months later requesting a church and presbytery for Syro-Malabar Catholics and St Ignatius was subsequently re-opened.
True, there will always be parishioners who feel alienated by the arrival of a foreign community, especially when Mass is celebrated in an unfamiliar language. Clergy have also seemed wary of non-English priests at times. Following the news in 2007 that foreign priests would be sent on a three-week course at Ushaw College, Durham to introduce them to the “British way of doing things,” Fr Terence Drainey (now Bishop Drainey of Middlesbrough) put it bluntly: “Some foreign priests working in Britain tend to be too dogmatic about the Church’s moral rightness on just about everything. That’s not how we do things here.”
But Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury praises the role of priests from overseas, who, he points out, “have served the Church in England from the beginning of her history”. Even so, “these generous priests cannot be the answer to our own lack of vocations.”
What is the answer? For Fr Stephen Langridge, director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Southwark, “the maintenance model of Church (as opposed to an ‘evangelisation and discipleship’ model) is still largely determining the formation given in seminaries.”
In essence, priests are not being formed to “evangelise or to enable people grow as disciples”. He adds: “In almost every diocese in the country the promotion of vocations is not a noticeable priority for the bishop. He has usually delegated it to a vocations director with little or no resources, other time-consuming jobs, and no direct contact with the bishop who never calls him to talk about it or even mentions vocations … ever!”
The Bishop of Hallam said that “something more radical is required” to handle the shortage of priests. But if evangelisation amounts to “something radical” this is a sad indictment of the state of the Church in England and Wales today and doesn’t bode well for future vocations.
Meanwhile, as Bishop Mark O’Toole of Plymouth says, there is a clear need. “The Catholic Church in this country has been deeply enriched for the past 150 years by welcoming people and priests from other parts of the world … I hope we will continue to welcome priests from abroad, too.” Faced with either an empty church or a foreign priest, the choice seems obvious.