Thursday, August 10, 2006

Vatican Recruits African, Asian Priests as Fewer Italians Serve

Aug. 10 (Bloomberg) -- Jess Marquina Marano is a godsend for Pope Benedict XVI.

The 41-year-old Filipino head of the parish of Nosta Signora di Fatima, in a working-class area of Rome, does a job the pope can't find an Italian to do. With a dearth of local priests, the Vatican is turning to Asian, African and Latin American clergy for churches in the shadow of St. Peter's Basilica.

The shortage reflects the faith's decline in Europe and the U.S. amid unpopular stances on issues such as contraception, abortion and women in the Church. The demographic shift among the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics raises the possibility that the next pope will be the first non-European pontiff and may threaten the Holy See's $271 million annual budget, most of which comes from Catholics in the U.S. and Europe.

``The future of the Church is clearly in the developing world,'' said Kevin F. Pecklers, theology professor at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. ``The Vatican very much looks to the U.S.Vatican.'' for financial help. If Americans stopped giving, it would be very deeply felt by the

Apathy toward the Vatican, the independent papal state on the Tiber River within Rome, became a subject of debate in Italy after the release last year of the ``The Parable of the Cleric,'' a study of the country's priesthood. It showed that one of every five churches in the Rome area is led by a non-Italian.

Some bishops say easing the ban on celibacy or allowing women into the priesthood might help the vocation appeal to more Catholics in the U.S. and Europe.

Pope Benedict XVI has made it clear that those changes aren't in the cards. Just days before being named pope, he said in a Rome sermon that the Catholic Church mustn't surrender to a ``dictatorship of relativism,'' adding that a smaller, more orthodox church is favorable to compromising on Catholic rules.

Demographic Shifts

In the five years through 2002, the Catholic population increased 22 percent in Africa and 5 percent in Asia, according to Fides, a Vatican news agency. In Europe, the number of Catholics declined 1 percent during the same period.

The number of priests in Europe and North America dropped 5 percent and 6 percent, respectively, from 1999 to 2004, the Statistical Yearbook of the Church shows. Asia's priesthood grew 13 percent and Africa's 18 percent.

The decline in priests began in the 1960s, when young people began questioning institutions such as churches and pursuing social change through protest rather than prayer, said Mary Gultier, a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or CARA, at Georgetown University in Washington.

A Low-Paying Job

``The status of clergy has declined in the U.S. and around the world,'' Gultier said. ``People used to hold up the clergy as a pillar. Now it's seen as just another low-paying, white-collar job.''

The college of cardinals, once dominated by Italians, now gets more than a third of its 120 voting members from developing countries. Italian cardinals account for just 17 percent of the voters, down from 23 percent in the 1978 conclave that elected Pope John Paul II, a Pole. In the two previous elections, Italians had more than 30 percent of the vote.

The number of foreign clergy in Rome is five times the national average, in part because the region's 1,440 parishes are best positioned to tap the pool of foreign priests attending the city's 17 seminaries and Catholic educational institutes.

The higher number is also a result of the historical animosity between Romans and the Vatican. Centuries of Vatican authority created tensions, said Luca Diotallevi, a sociologist in Rome who edited the Parable study.

Tensions in Rome

Before Rome's territories were united with the rest of Italy, the Vatican was the region's biggest property holder, rulemaker, tax collector, and at times torturer and executioner. When the papal states were wrested from Pope Pius IX in 1870, many Italians turned their backs on the Church.

``Having a person so important living in your neighborhood can create a certain sufferance,'' said Marco Fibbi, spokesman for Cardinal Camillo Ruini, who fills in for the pope in administering many of his duties as the Bishop of Rome.

With Rome hostile, the Vatican finds itself turning more and more to the likes of Marano of the Philippines.

``The Church isn't getting basket loads of new priests, but on the other hand it's getting a steadily growing trickle of extremely loyal and motivated'' priests, said John Allen, author of ``The Rise of Benedict XVI: The Inside Story of How the Pope Was Elected and Where He Will Take the Catholic Church'' (Doubleday, 256 pages, $19.95).

Marano, who graduated from the Lateran University in Rome in 1996, prays in Italian and speaks the language with a slight accent. Since taking over the parish in September, Marano said he's been making home visits with the parishioners and developing community contacts.

The cleric attributes his decision to remain in Rome to a vision by his mother, who dreamed she saw him wearing black robes, surrounded by children. His mother's last words before dying were, ``I thank the Lord you came to Rome,'' he said.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Adam L. Freeman in Rome at

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