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The Church is becoming, even visibly, ever more "catholic", that is, universal. She is growing in the so-called mission territories and her growth is shifting towards the southern part of the world. Many young ecclesial communities spring up in Third World countries, among peoples who are poor in means but open and generous from a religious viewpoint. Various continental assemblies of Bishops have shown to Rome and the world a large number of pastors from various races and cultures.

Although two-thirds of the world's population have yet to hear of Jesus Christ, in the towns and parishes of the West more and more African, Asian and Latin American priests and religious are seen, who are only partly engaged in providing spiritual assistance or evangelization to immigrants from their own countries. Many, mostly priests, come to continue their studies but extend their stay, or after completing them easily find a ministerial post in Europe or North America and do not return to the Church they came from. The phenomenon has become so widespread that it now needs to be carefully evaluated in the context of the ecclesial situation, and regulated, as requested by various parties, so that this kind of mobility may not damage but help the growth of the Churches in mission lands.

This is the purpose of the Instruction On the Sending Abroad and Sojourn of Diocesan Priests from Mission Territories, issued in 2001 with the Holy Father's approval by the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples on a significant date for missions, 25 April, the Feast of St Mark the Evangelist.

The Instruction has two parts, one expositional, the other normative. Its positive intention, to foster the true missionary spirit of all diocesan priests and to help the young Churches to mature in an orderly way, is very clear in the sober but dense first part that fully justifies the essential norms, repeated and specified in the second part.

From the beginning, emphasis is placed on the universal mission of priests "to the end of the earth" (Acts 1,8) which was strongly recalled by the Second Vatican Council and by the post-conciliar Magisterium. The Decree on missionary activity, "Ad gentes", exhorts priests to be "profoundly aware of the fact that their very life is consecrated to the service of the missions" (Ad gentes, n. 39). The Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests "Presbyterorum ordinis" indicates the indelible, ontological foundation of this missionary characteristic of every priest in the sacrament of Orders he has received:  "The spiritual gift which priests have received in ordination does not prepare them merely for a limited and circumscribed mission, but for the fullest, in fact the universal mission of salvation "to the end of the earth'. The reason is that every priestly ministry shares in the fullness of the mission entrusted by Christ to the apostles" (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 10).

Obviously, this missionary dimension of the priesthood is not cancelled by his assignment to a diocese. In fact the "innate" missionary vocation of priests is at the root of a precious service, even temporary, which they can offer to the young Churches. It has given rise to an important form of missionary cooperation for diocesan priests called "fidei donum", according to the famous Encyclical of Pius XII.

The Instruction is concerned with reaffirming the full validity of this form, today more timely than ever, as long as it is motivated by a real missionary spirit. If it is lived well, it can bear abundant fruit as it already has, wherever evangelization needed and still needs today new incentives and vigour, because of insufficient means and personnel.

This form of cooperation is also beginning to gain a foothold among the diocesan clergy of territories that send missionaries to other young Churches. To cite a few examples, the episcopate of Burkina Faso, although in need of missionaries, is sending its own priests to Niger. The first Bishop of the new Diocese of Maradi is one of these priests. Some dioceses of Nigeria lend their priests to other churches, at home and abroad. Diocesan priests of other African and Latin American countries become missionaries on other continents for several years. Such movement is normally inspired by true missionary motives and regulated by agreements between the respective Bishops, in the original country and in the destination.

Moreover, the new wave of immigrants from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania can be a pastoral challenge for the local Churches, especially in Europe and North America, which must seek pastors who can guide and eventually evangelize them. Some Bishops' Conferences of young Churches, such as the Church in Korea, send priests to assist their fellow countrymen abroad. The Instruction dedicates attention to this situation too.

Persecution, wars and similar grave circumstances constitute another, although less common, reason for the sojourn abroad of diocesan priests from mission territories. The Instruction requires that before assigning a pastoral office to such a priest, the Bishop receiving him in his diocese hear the views of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, which may have fuller information and assessments regarding the case.

However, there is also the other side of the coin. In the young churches vocations abound. Within 20 years their number has tripled. Today the Pontifical Missionary Societies help almost 30,000 major and 50,000 minor seminarians. These are destined to carry on the work of evangelization in their regions, often also replacing western missionaries in the first evangelization. Their seminary formation usually takes place in their own countries, so as not to uproot them from their dioceses and culture. After ordination some are sent for further studies, possibly on the same continent or elsewhere, to cover the formative or directive needs of the developing communities. Many of them long to come to the West and stay there for long periods or definitively, prompted by motives that are not truly missionary, such as better living conditions or good economic situations. On the other hand, the Western Churches are currently suffering a certain vocations crisis and gladly have recourse to the easy solution of staffing their parishes with African, Asian or Latin American priests, heedless of the possible harm this can cause to the mission ad gentes and to the frail young communities.

Many mission dioceses cannot give up their own priests because they represent the forces indispensable for their survival and the continuation of evangelization, also damaged by the decreasing numbers of Western missionaries. Thus the Churches of ancient foundation, on the one hand, no longer offer the help they once offered missionaries and, on the other, deprive mission territories of their own local priests who should be carrying on the work of evangelization.

Moreover, it should be kept in mind that a priest in a mission country has to reckon with thousands more people than his counterpart in a developed one. So, for example, priests in India, where practically no more visas are issued to missionaries, must serve not only the 16 million Catholics but must evangelize a billion non-Christians, whereas some years ago a single European diocese integrated 39 of these priests into its pastoral service.

Some dioceses in Africa and Asia have a third or even half of their diocesan clergy in other countries, for financial reasons. I know of one that has 83 priests abroad, while within the country evangelization is stagnating. In Italy there are 1,800 foreign priests, of whom 800 are involved full time in direct pastoral work. With such a number of diocesan priests many new dioceses could be created in mission lands! Can Italy consider itself a "mission territory" to this extent, with the same number of priests per faithful and per population as in Africa and Asia?

This is a valid question for all the Churches with an ancient tradition. Some have already tried to analyze the situation and prepared guidelines. The Instruction is a tacit call to reflection, addressed to both the new and the older Churches. A community that fails to find the ministers it needs among its own people must reflect on the causes of this situation and the proper remedies, such as the pastoral care of families and vocations, and appreciation of lay ministry. It can of course accept temporary help in difficulties or crises but must never deprive young Churches of these priests who are often those with the best training. It is a matter of fairness and of ecclesial sense.

The Instruction aims at regulating these situations primarily through the agreements between the Bishops of diocesan priests in mission territories who are sent abroad and the Bishops who receive them. It channels the necessary flow of priests so that it may benefit the Churches and the growth of a genuine missionary spirit.

This new Instruction, although modest and unassuming in appearance, is an implicit invitation to all the Churches, young and older, to find in well-ordered missions their raison d'être and the strength for their own renewal:  "Missionary activity renews the Church, revitalizes faith and Christian identity, and offers fresh enthusiasm and new incentive" (Encyclical Letter Redemptoris missio, n. 2).