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Foreign missionaries spread the gospel

Benny Varghese says he can adapt to Swiss ways swissinfo.ch

The Vatican may have filled the highest office in the Catholic Church, but Switzerland’s bishoprics are struggling to find parish priests.

This content was published on April 15, 2005 - 17:47

There has been a drastic decline in the number of men going into the priesthood, forcing dioceses to look abroad in search of clergy.

"We are missionaries in the sense that we have a special mission," says the new priest in the alpine village of Disentis, Benny Varghese, who comes from the southern Indian state of Kerala.

"A few hundred years ago, many European missionaries came to India and to Kerala," he says. "They worked hard and now I think it’s the duty of every Christian to work anywhere in the world for the church of Christ." (Listen to Varghese by clicking on the audio link above)

Varghese is one of hundreds of foreign priests in Switzerland. It is believed that only one-third of the parishes in the diocese of Chur – the second-largest in the country – have a full-time clergyman at their disposal, and a quarter of those have come from abroad.

The situation is not much better in the largest diocese, Basel, where at least half of the parishes are without priests and more than half of the clerics available are non-Swiss.

The foreigners have come to a country experiencing a sharp decline in churchgoers. In 1970, 90 per cent of the Swiss population belonged to either the Catholic or Protestant churches. This figure has dropped to 75 per cent nationwide and is much lower in urban areas.

India and Africa

The clerics from India, Africa, South America and eastern Europe are faced with the unenviable task of winning them back.

This is far from easy, especially for the Indians and Africans who are working in remote villages where it is rare to find people of a different race in positions of authority. They also have to overcome cultural differences and language barriers.

Varghese only arrived four months ago and does not yet speak Romansh. But he leads Mass in the local language, reading from a text that others have prepared for him.

"Language is a problem but I have to learn it, there is no other way," says Varghese.

"I think people coming from India, especially from Kerala, don’t have much difficulty adapting to new customs and practices because we have a lot of different customs, practices and traditions [in Kerala].

"Theologically or spiritually there is no difference. The message is the same," he adds.

Mixed welcome

But adapting to a new culture is not their only challenge: the arrival of foreign priests has proved hard for some parishioners to swallow.

"There is always scepticism when a new priest arrives, but our African priest and Benny are very charismatic," says one man, speaking after a Mass led by Varghese. "They are widely accepted here."

However, another resident who spoke to swissinfo said there had been opposition to the foreigners.

"Not necessarily from the elderly churchgoers, but there is a group of middle-aged people who were completely against some of the priests who were posted here, and these foreigners eventually had to leave," he says.

One elderly woman on her way to church calls Varghese "fantastic" but adds that "we don’t pray enough and that’s why we don’t have enough Swiss priests."

"I wonder to what extent the Church itself is the problem," asks another woman. "Maybe lay persons should be allowed to lead church services, or why not let priests marry?

"It’s strange, Europe used to send missionaries out into the world and now it’s the other way around."

Foreign clerics

The diocese of Chur is resigned to the fact that it will have to depend on foreign clerics for some time to come, and it has introduced a course to help them integrate into society and the Catholic Church in Switzerland.

According to deacon Franz-Xaver Herger, who leads the courses, language is only one barrier.

They also have to be taught about the different structural aspects of the Catholic Church in Switzerland and the country’s unique brand of democracy and institutions.

"For many priests, our democratic sense and way of thinking is strange," Herger told swissinfo.

He says priests from abroad are used to carrying out orders from the bishop. Here they also have to consult members of the parish.

"This is where different mentalities collide. The legal bases of our authorised church are for many incomprehensible," he says.

Difficult times

But no matter how well schooled they are, foreign priests cannot be expected to solve all the problems facing the Catholic Church.

"Church life in its current form is on the verge of collapse since there is no younger generation of believers or enough men willing to go into the priesthood or work as volunteers," Markus Ries, professor of church history at Lucerne University, told Der Bund newspaper recently.

But the Church’s loss is a blessing for men like Varghese.

I would like to work in more countries," he says. "I love it because we can come to know more people and different customs, different people and lifestyles. That’s something wonderful."

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Disentis

Key facts

Church membership in Switzerland, according to the 2000 census:
41.8% Roman Catholic
35.3% Protestant
4.3% Muslim
2.8% other (Orthodox Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish)
11.1% none

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