When Fr Joseph Longo arrived in France from the Democratic Republic of the Congo 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. 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.
“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, said.
“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 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. If it isn’t planned and done with obedience, it should be condemned.”
A French archbisop 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.
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.