Millions flooded Rome last week to honor the late Pope John Paul II. Even so, all is not well with the Catholic Church, which has faced a decline in membership and a shortage of priests in recent years.
More priests wanted
It’s early Saturday evening and bells from the monastery and the baroque church are calling people to mass in the sleepy alpine village of Disentis. For a quarter of an hour, the peals drown out every other sound in the village, yet few heed their call.
Only a few dozen mostly elderly people attend the service. And because Swiss priests are also a rare commodity, the mass is led by a foreigner, a priest from the southern Indian state of Kerala.
A smaller flock
Benny Varghese is one of many foreign shepherds in western Europe, tending to an ever smaller flock. He gives his sermon in the local language, Romansh, but it has been prepared for him, since Varghese does not yet speak the language, having only been in Switzerland for four months. When talking to locals, he uses his limited knowledge of German, which is also spoken here. Varghese’s broad smile widens further when asked if he sees himself as a missionary.
“We are missionaries in the sense that we have a special mission," he said. "About 300-400 years ago, many European missionaries came to India and to our place, Kerala, and worked hard and now I think it’s the duty of every Christian to work anywhere in the world for the church of Christ.”
Varghese says priests from his home diocese are spreading the word of God in the four corners of the globe, particularly in the west where an acute shortage of priests is symptomatic of sharply declining interest in the Catholic and Protestant churches as institutions.
“As you know, in Switzerland like other European countries, the church is facing a difficult situation of lack of priests," he said. "It’s an understanding between the bishop of Chur here and my bishop in Kerala, and my bishop requested me to come over to Switzerland to do my ministry here.”
Some sceptical, others welcoming
In the two largest Swiss bishoprics, Chur and Basel, there are only enough priests for about half of the parishes and every second cleric is a foreigner -- having been brought in from India, Africa, South America and eastern Europe. They have to learn new languages, adapt to different customs and traditions and -- in Varghese’s case -- an unfamiliar, cold climate. Yet the congregation in Disentis has already warmed to him, even though foreigners of a different skin color in positions of authority are few and far between in these parts.
One parishioner says people are sceptical when a new priest arrives, but adds Varghese and a Nigerian priest who has also come to the region to preach, are both very charismatic. He’s thrilled Varghese is already leading mass in Romansh.
Another churchgoer, an elderly woman, describes Varghese as fantastic but says that people should pray for more Swiss men to go into the priesthood.
Other churchgoers wonder if the church itself is the problem, by not allowing priests to marry or lay persons to lead mass. Some say the world has been turned upside down, since it used to be Europe that sent missionaries out into the world.
No real difference
Varghese says that theologically or spiritually, there is no difference.
"The message is the same, but the customs and practices, the way we do it, some differences are there because I come from another tradition,” he says.
"I would like to work in even more countries, I love it because we can come to know more people and different customs, lifestyle and everything. That's something wonderful.”