Accepted paper:

Reverse missionaries: cultivating spiritual connections between Sri Lankan priests and European laities


Bernardo Brown (Division of Arts and Sciences, College of Liberal Arts, International Christian University)

Paper short abstract:

Sri Lankan Catholic priests develop a deep spiritual connection to Italian parishioners. This congenial relationship is based on the emphasis placed by Asian seminaries on pastoral training, and on a kind of reciprocity by which spiritual guidance is repaid with hospitality towards foreign clergy

Paper long abstract:

This paper examines the experiences of Sri Lankan Catholic priests who work in Italy, especially focusing on the distinct care that they place on reaching out to the communities that they work with. Through fieldwork conducted in Sri Lanka and Italy, I analyze how South Asian priestly vocations are strongly inspired by the conviction that missionary work and pastoral care are the central component of religious life. Such an approach is contrasted with the more "professional" training of European clergy who retain a strong sense of personal space, privacy and distance from the laity. As a consequence of this different methodologies, European laities often see in foreign priests a more honest and genuinely disinterested way of living the priesthood. I argue that while missionaries care for the spiritual well-being of the parishes they work with, receiving communities also "give back" by placing particular care in welcoming and embracing foreign priests who often struggle with the language and culture of European Catholicism. A reciprocal relationship emerges in which the spiritual guidance and full-time dedication that migrant priests offer is acknowledged with hospitality and warmth. Moreover, reproducing a similar phenomenon as that confronted by European missionaries in South Asia a century earlier, foreign priests are generally perceived to be exempt from local tensions and interests, in this way highlighting their spiritual commitments and underplaying mundane attachments.

panel Rel03
In search of faith: itinerant religiosities and negotiated moralities in Asia