Sep 22, 2018 Last Updated 10:01 PM, Sep 19, 2018

« STOPGAP » in Religious Life

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The Church is missionary by her very nature. She received this mission of Jesus Christ: to be his witness in the whole world, in the four cardinal directions : North, South, East, West. When we talk about the North-South boundary, we refer to the North-South Report: a survival program, published in 1980 by Willy Brandt, German Chancellor from 1969 to 1974. By « North », the concept means countries of the world from northern hemisphere, ie those of the Triad: East Asia, Western Europe and North America, in addition to some new industrialized countries; the « South » indicates countries of the southern hemisphere, essentially the developing countries. That being said, that way of categorizing countries remains questionable and more and more open to criticism.

This article, however, is not meant to be a historical-geographical or economic reflection, but a questioning of the presence of confreres and sisters, priests, religious and nuns, who have just come from these developing countries, to exercise their ministry in the North. Some of us are nicknamed « stopgaps », meaning people whose presence in the North is only to fill in gaps of lacking personnel. The leading question is: ​​could we be really considered stopgaps? To get a clearer picture, we will come back to the movement of members of religious and diocesan communities from North to South, and then look more closely at the movement from South to North. We will conclude with a short reflection on the universality of the Church and love.

The movement from North to South

Without wishing to dwell on the history of evangelization in the South, it must be said that, from the era of colonization, the Catholic Church has been present in the ‘Southern’ countries. There have been movements of priests, religious and nuns from the northern countries to the southern countries. These missionaries are remembered as they left their « developed » countries to witness to Jesus Christ in third world countries. Arrived in these mission environments, they have generally been well received by the inhabitants although some had to make sacrifices of their lives. Many took advantage of their missionary journey to study and apprehend peoples cultures where they were sent, to better convey the message of the Gospel. For some, they have integrated with host societies and this has been a success. For others, the experience was less satisfactory. This is what the ethnographer Todorov named the three distinct axis:

  • Axiological axis that refers to the representation and value judgment on the other. The latter may be « good or bad, I like him or I do not like him » (cited by Agbobli & Hsab, 2011, 21). He is either equal to or inferior to me.
  • The praxeological axis which refers to behaviors « of approximation or of distance from each other » (Idem). Hence, indifference and neutrality.
  • The epistemological axis that refers to the knowledge or ignorance of the other.

The movement from South to North

For some time now, the Catholic Church in the northern hemisphere has been challenged by a lack of priestly vocation. To overcome this crisis of vocations, the ecclesiastical authorities (religious communities and dioceses) of these rich countries of the Northern hemisphere are increasingly appealing to their confreres and sisters as well as to priests called in fidei donum (as a gift of faith) from southern countries. Their status in these new host countries of the North varies according to their state in the Church. In the case of religious communities members, most do not have any contract binding them for the number of years they will have to spend in their host community. They feel at home and enjoy the same treatment as other members of the local community, because they are bound by the constitutions of their congregation that automatically make them equals regardless of their country of origin. As for the diocesan priests, the situation is different: they have a sort of three-year contract, renewable if possible, in the framework of an agreement between their home bishops and those of the host dioceses. Finally, for student-priests in Catholic institutes or universities, they exercise part-time ministry in neighboring parishes. A last group, which stays in the North for medical reasons, collaborates, as far as possible, in the service of the dioceses where they are.

Thus, experience shows that cultural shock is immense and causes damage in priests, religious lives and communities. In the aftermath of facing cultural shock, some are accepted by the faithful or their confreres or sisters and continue to form community with them; others are rejected. Far from making an enforceable judgement, there is convincing evidence that some religious in North are considered « stopgaps » in their missionary communities. For instance, in decision-making authority upon cultural shock consequences, it is obviously noticed that, rather than helping the person so rejected, in many instances, communities opt for a change of country of mission or sending back the religious to his home country. It also happens, as an alternative, that the religious is offered the opportunity to pursue his studies or reseach claiming that it will help to assume other responsibilities, when returning home. I am inclined to view the preceding examples as a revealing illustration.


Here we are at the end of our reflection on « stopgap » in religious life. The Catholic Church is universal and this is true no matter where you are. Her members, among others, priests and religious, cannot ignore the intercultural approach. The confreres, priests, religious, nuns of the Southern hemisphere are not « stopgaps », which means, objects, useless people, but rather road companions with the aim of meeting the same mission, that of testifying of Jesus Christ. It would be an unforgivable mistake if someone bases his logic of life with his fellow brother or sister, from the South hemisphere, on syllogisms. Why should some from the North treat other fellows from the South, stopgaps? If this is the thought that animates the hearts of some, it means that they have not yet reached the necessary maturity to practice love of neighbor portrayed in the Gospel of Matthew (25, 35 -46): « For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (…) » How can we preach love to others if we cannot be the first ones to witness love to one another? Can we speak of the internationality of religious communities or the universality of our Catholic Church when some are considered threats, even dangers, for others? Let us take advantage of our respective and tremendous riches regardless of our places of origin, to build up open Christian communities and finally a better world where everyone, from the North to the South and vice versa, will flourish together.

Montréal, 11/02/2018



La Bible de Jérusalem

Agbobli, C. & Hsab, G., (dir. 2011). Communication internationale et communication interculturelle. Regards épistémologiques et espaces de pratique,Montréal : Presses de l’Université du Québec.

Jean-Paul II (7 décembre 1990). Lettre Encyclique Redemptoris Missio. Vatican : Libreria Editrice Vaticana

Paul VI (8 décembre 1975). Exhortation Apostolique Evangelii Nuntiandi. Vatican : Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

Todorov, T. (1982). La conquête de l’Amérique : la question de l’autre, Paris, Seuil.

Todorov, T. (1989). Nous et les autres : la réflexion française sur la diversité humaine, Paris, Seuil.

Vatican II, (7 décembre 1965). Ad gentes

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