As fewer and fewer German men and women take on work in the nation’s churches, pastoral duties are falling on foreign priests -- some of whom come from countries where Germany used to send its missionaries.
Many foreign hands are blessing congregations in Germany
When parish members in the German town of Spalt, near Nuremberg, gather for Christmas mass this year they're going to hear something Germany's churchgoers aren't usually accustomed to.
Father Thomas George Pattarumadathil will be telling them about Christmas in India and giving them insight into his experiences as an assistant parish priest in Germany. Pattarumadathil, 37, is one of many foreign pastors working in Germany.
While there are no figures for the exact number of foreign religious workers in Germany, most of whom come from Eastern Europe, India and Africa, the Catholic and Protestant churches agree their help is appreciated.
Filling a gap
Indian priests are used to different conditions when preaching at home
"Foreign priests are welcome to help with pastoral care," said Stefanie Uphues, a spokeswoman for the German Bishops Conference. "It's not easy for them, especially when the church and community structure differ from their experience at home."
Though the process may not be easy, there are still people like Pattarumadathil who come to preach in Germany, and fill gaps left by the dwindling number of Germans entering the priesthood.
"There are many places, especially in rural areas, that would not be able to hold Sunday services without foreign priests," said Reinhard Kürzinger, a cathedral vicar in Bavaria's Eichstätt diocese, who has directed a program that has been training foreign priests to work in Germany since 1997. "Many of the priests come from countries where Germany used to do missionary work."
Missionizing in the home country
But now Germany itself has practically become a country in need of missionary work. The German Catholic Church, which has about 26 million members, ordained 130 priests in 2003, one less than 2002, continuing a general downward trend. The number of priests here has been on the decline for the past 15 years, with the amount of active Catholic priests falling 20 percent since 1990.
Foreign pastors are at work in Catholic as well as Protestant churches in Germany
Foreign pastors are also at work in Germany's Protestant Church, which also counts about 26 million members. But unlike the Catholic Church, there is no program to encourage them to work in German congregations, according to Christof Vetter, a German Protestant Church spokesman.
Foreigners part of pastoral team
Recognizing the increasing need for foreign religious workers, Kürzinger recently drew up guidelines to help dioceses looking to use foreign priests. He outlined what the church needs to do to ensure that the foreigners fit into their congregation and what assistance their German mentors should provide.
In most cases, foreign priests do not work independently but as part of a pastoral team and stay in Germany for between five and seven years.
Language often a problem
Making sure parishioners can understand the foreign priests is one of the main tasks for the churches. But, being able to speak German is sometimes not enough. The dialects spoken in parts of the country can seem indecipherable even to priests who speak German.
With a declining number of Germans going into the priesthood, the country's dioceses are looking abroad for help
"My German is good, and I can speak without thinking about each word, but I can still make improvements to my grammar," said Pattarumadathil, who has been in Germany for three years and receives language courses from the Eichstätt diocese. "People here are patient with me and have made me feel really comfortable."
In addition to language lessons, the priests also get tips on how to approach German parishioners and what church members expect of priests.
"The essence of the liturgy here is the same, but the cultural and traditional differences make it very different from India," Pattarumadathil said. "But people have been patient, and I feel like I'm at home here."