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 Father 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.”
Father 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 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 Conférence des évêques 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.