African dioceses are increasingly concerned at the number of priests absconding

When Fr Joseph Longo arrived in France from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2003, he planned to stay just a few months to complete a philosophy doctorate. Today, having run large parish clusters in different dioceses, he has become one of many resident African priests helping to sustain the French Church.

It was hardly surprising that Fr Longo was prevailed upon to stay. Over the last half century the number of priests in France has been reduced by three quarters. Within six months of studying at Toulouse University’s Catholic faculty, Fr Longo had been asked to take over the medieval St Barthelemy’s Church at nearby Lauzerte, which also involved looking after 18 other parishes.

He is one of 1,800 foreign priests officially ministering in France, mostly from former colonies in Africa. The figure is nearly a fifth of the total number of diocesan clergy – 11,500. An unknown number of priests are also here without authorisation. And recently there have been signs of discontent at what some African bishops see as a new “ecclesiastical migration”.

In May, the Ivory Coast’s bishops’ conference complained that more and more priests were going missing in Europe and ignoring instructions to return after completing study and pastoral assignments. (It’s not just France: in Italy, for instance, up to 40 per cent of parishes are run by foreign-born clergy.)

“The situation is worsening and we have to speak out and take a common stand, so the dioceses hosting our priests will understand our position,” Bishop Ignace Bessi Dogbo of Katiola, the bishops’ conference president, told the Catholic La Croix daily.

“Once a priest is on mission, the host bishop needs to ensure he was genuinely sent by his own diocese and didn’t get there by some other means … If we’re to work together for the evangelisation of our respective countries, we must also respect each other’s rights.”

Bishop Dogbo said he was not sure how many of Ivory Coast’s clergy had absconded. But some dioceses, he said, were missing up to a third of their priests who had “made excuses” not to come home.

Some European Church leaders are sympathetic to these concerns. Archbishop Dominique Lebrun of Rouen, who led a Church working group for “priests coming from abroad”, admitted the problems were growing as priests resisted calls to return to their countries of origin – citing study needs, personality clashes or political anxieties.

“Whatever the circumstances, the non-return of a priest harms his fundamental relationship with his diocese and his pastor-bishop,” the archbishop told La Croix. “If it isn’t planned and done with obedience, it should be condemned.”

Archbishop Lebrun said he was sensitive to priestly needs. Some clergy arrive in Europe without proper papers, having suffered hardships at home, while virtually all have faced racism and challenges adapting to a new culture. Many have counted on staying to support poor family members, or become dependent on medicines unobtainable at home, and clearly need help when preparing to go back.

But co-operation must be maintained between the bishops affected, Lebrun said, in line with canon law and Catholic collegiality rules. There could be no question of rich dioceses poaching clergy from poorer ones, or of European parishes undermining the authority of African bishops by offering sanctuary to their priests.

Whether this will satisfy Bishop Dogbo and his colleagues remains to be seen.

Last month the Ivorian bishops’ conference president discussed the situation with his French counterpart, Archbishop Georges Pontier of Marseille, and a French Church delegation is expected to continue talks shortly in the Ivorian capital, Abidjan.

Bishop Dogbo admitted that the African Church has a problem with obedience anyway, especially among younger clergy. But, however urgently Europe’s bishops need priests, he said, they must always check where they are from, what they are doing and whether they are needed at home. Even those who acquire European citizenship remain attached to their dioceses of origin.

After 15 years in France, Fr Longo now leads a parish at Châteauneuf in Brittany and is unlikely to be returning any time soon to the conflict-torn DRC. Aged 57, he admits he has faced problems adapting to the French secular lifestyle, but is confident his presence is helping the local Church.

This year alone, the bishop of his former Montauban diocese, Bernard Ginoux, appointed priests from the DRC, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Senegal to lead his parish clusters, noting carefully in a July communiqué that all came “with authorisation from their bishops” and were essential to his Church’s “mission of evangelisation”.

“My own country was evangelised by French missionaries, and their work is bearing fruit now as we bring the faith back to France,” Fr Longo told the Catholic Herald. “As an African, I’m surprised at the indifference towards religion here. But there’s still plenty of goodwill and I’ve had no difficulty being accepted.”