POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Apr 8, 2013
SAINT-VALLIER, France » In Togo, the Rev. Rodolphe Folly used to conduct exuberant Sunday services for a hundred believers of all ages, who sang local gospel music and went up to him to offer what they had.
In this quiet town in Burgundy, he preaches to a more somber audience of about 40 gray-haired retirees in an unadorned 19th-century church that can accommodate up to 600 people.
"In my country, we applaud, we acclaim, we shout," said Folly, a Roman Catholic priest who spoke in the living room of his modern, modest house. "Here, even when I ask people to shake hands, they say no."
Folly, 45, has settled in this town of about 9,000 residents, assigned to replace an aging priest. He has brought his jovial smile and good heart to a place where religious practice is weak, as it is in many other areas of France. He is part of a battalion of priests who have come to France from abroad — from places like Benin, Burkina-Faso, Cameroon but also Vietnam and Poland — who now represent about 10 percent of France's declining clerical ranks.
The Catholic Church in Western Europe and the United States has been coping with a severe shortage of priests in the last few decades, as many abandoned the priesthood or passed away. So bishops in the developed world have been reaching out to their counterparts in the developing world to bring priests from Africa, Asia and Latin America, where the priesthood is still an appealing prospect and vocations are booming.
The flow of priests from the developing world to wealthier churches in the West amounts to a brain drain within the church. The ratio of priests to parishes is just as bad, if not worse, in the developing world as it is in the West, but the Western nations have the resources to relocate and support these foreign priests. Bishops from Europe and the United States recruit priests from the global south in ad hoc arrangements with local bishops and religious orders, usually without any involvement from the Vatican. The flow of Catholic missionaries, who used to leave France, Italy, Ireland and the United States for the developing world, has now been largely reversed.
The decline of the priesthood as a vocation is particularly pronounced in France, a country that defines itself as secular. Magnificent churches dot the country, but France's clergy is old and ordinations of priests are in continuing decline. The average age of France's 14,000 priests is 72.
About 1,600, the number of foreign priests has nearly tripled over the last eight years, with many being recruited to parishes in urban areas and the Parisian suburbs.
To church officials, this is not necessarily a bad thing. "They bring freshness, youth and another way to consider the pastoral," said the Rev. Pierre-Yves Pecqueux, who heads international recruitment at the Conference des eveques de France, the church's bishops' committee. "They have their own way to speak about faith, and a joy to believe in God."
Most foreign priests are sent to France for three, six or nine years according to an agreement between bishops. They settle here on the basis of the "Fidei Donum" (Gift of Faith), the 1957 encyclical that encouraged bishops to open themselves "to the universal needs of the church." Some also serve as part-time priests, having come here primarily to study theology in French universities.
The church organizes sessions to welcome foreign priests and train them for the religious realities of France. The newcomers are given information about the history of Roman Catholicism in France, the specifics of state secularism and the use of social media.
For many priests, the fundamental problem is the church's struggle to define itself for a new generation in a secular country and amid a de-Christianizing trend in Western Europe. Many young French people consider Roman Catholicism the religion of guilt, often ill-adapted to social realities and harmed by continuing scandals over pedophilia.
In 2012, only 56 percent of the French declared themselves Catholic, compared with 81 percent of the French in 1986, according to a study conducted in 2012 by the CSA polling institute. By last year, 47 percent of those ages 18 to 24 said they were "of no religion." (The poll interviewed samples of 20,000 people.)
"If this tendency is confirmed, it is likely that people ‘of no religion' will be the main group in the French population within the next 20 or 30 years," said Yves-Marie Cann, the deputy director of the opinion department at CSA.
The church has tried to promote the priesthood, for example by distributing in 2010 about 70,000 postcards to bars, restaurants and movie theaters across France, featuring young and trendy men wearing lapel pins that read, "Jesus is my boss."
There were 691 seminarians in France in 2012, a sharp drop from even a decade ago, when there were more than a thousand. Last year, only 97 priests were ordained, compared with 142 in 2000, according to the Conference des eveques de France. The trend has accelerated with the urbanization of France. Where the "cure de campagne," or countryside priest, was once a pillar, rural areas are now filled with overworked priests who run from one church to another, which prevents them from developing deep community ties.
The Rev. Thomas Magimel, who serves 48 churches in the Dordogne and leads about 280 funerals every year, said that the influx of African priests is not a long-term solution to the church's problems. "They're better placed to talk about the Gospel in their country," he said, "and it would be selfish of us to abuse their generosity."
Magimel was confident that the election of Pope Francis and his message of peace and humility would revitalize the Roman Catholic faith among young people. The priest, he says, will conduct fewer services, but he must turn each of them into a moment of "discussion and conviviality," with more religious education and payers.
"We priests must try to encourage people to know each other, to eat a meal together," Magimel said. "We need church to be more present."
In Saint-Vallier, Folly, the Togolese priest, does his laundry, cooks his meals and puzzles over French practices. In Togo, he said, priests are respected figures who visit people's homes and employ full-time cooks.
"Here the priest is a mere citizen who has a job that many others don't do," he said, driving around his parish in his white Renault Clio, where a tiny soccer ball hangs from the rearview mirror.
Once a month, Folly lays a table near the front door of his church and invites his parishioners for what he calls a "friendship drink" with red wine, snacks and candies for the children. Sometimes, he even slips a recording of a famous singer of poetry, Jean Ferrat, who died in 2010, into the CD player of the church to make the gathering more convivial.
"I've given up my culture, my family to come here and live in solitude," Folly said. "But my presence here says how universal the church is."