New thinking vital to meet crisis of vocations and faith


In 20 years the Irish Catholic Church will have far fewer priests unless admission policies are changed

WHAT WILL the Irish Catholic Church look like in 20 years?

The year 2032 will be all of 1,600 years after St Patrick arrived on these shores in AD 432. He may need to return.

Let’s get some grim statistics out of the way first. The average age of the Irish Catholic priest today is 64. His retirement age is 75. In 2032 the average age will be higher still, with a greater proportion of Irish priests in retirement.

Fr Brendan Hoban of the Association of Catholic Priests leadership team wrote in 2009 of his own Killala diocese in the west that “in 20 years’ time there will be around eight priests instead of the present 34, with probably two or three under 60 years of age”.

At the moment there are 30 priests in Killala.

Fr Hoban went further. He said then, too, “the difficult truth is that priests will have effectively disappeared in Ireland in two to three decades”.

That same year it also emerged that in the Tuam archdiocese the number of priests was set to fall by 30 per cent between then and next year, 2013.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin has said that there are 10 times more priests over 70 than under 40 in the archdiocese. Last November he put it starkly: the situation in Dublin was such that “the change that will take place between now and the year 2020 – just eight years away – will be enormous. I am more and more convinced that they will be the most challenging years that the diocese has had to face since Catholic emancipation (1829)”.

By 2020, the number of priests in Dublin will drop by about 36 per cent, from 456 to about 294. Just 235 will be available to serve full-time in Dublin’s 199 parishes, he said, with the remainder serving as chaplains or at central services. Meanwhile priests’ income in Dublin has fallen 15 per cent in the past two years to an average of €24,079 per annum, as weekly Mass attendance hovers at 14 per cent.

What has been happening in Dublin is reflected in each of the 26 Catholic dioceses on the island. In each, too, as the priests get older and their income drops, their workload increases.

This is due to parish clustering, whereby priests who would normally serve in just one parish must now also take care of the needs of the faithful in nearby parishes as well.

This, itself, is due to the growing shortage of priests. No wonder morale is low among Irish Catholic priests.

But is it all doom and gloom?

Well, no. Of the 1,965 priests currently in parish ministry in Ireland, 838 are 54 years and under. Even the 54-year-olds will not have reached retirement age by 2032. And between now and 2032 more priests will be ordained on an annual basis, though nobody should get too excited about that.

Last year just six men were ordained priests in Ireland. Even if that were the average for the next 20 years it would mean we would have almost 1,000 (958, to be exact) priests in Ireland by 2032. It may be enough.

Baroness Nuala O’Loan has said that “even with 1,500 priests in Ireland [currently there are 4,475, including diocesan priests and members of religious congregations], we would still have one priest for every 3,000 or more people.” She compared that with a priest she had met from rural East Timor who had a parish of 30,000.

On top of those anticipated numbers of priests in Ireland, in 2032 there will also be additional permanent deacons. Eight such men were ordained in Dublin’s pro-cathedral last Monday, with other such ordinations to take place in seven more Catholic dioceses in Ireland. It is highly likely this pattern will be followed in the church’s remaining dioceses on the island also.

These permanent deacons will be able to officiate at baptisms, weddings and funerals. In so doing, they will greatly lessen the workload of priests.

Another way of freeing up, indeed liberating, priests to exclusively exercise their essential spiritual function is for the laity to take over parish administrative duties.

This is happening already and is a source of immense satisfaction to the great majority of priests. Their vocation, after all, is not to manage finances, sit on committees or boards of management, or to teach secular subjects.

We may even go the way of the French. In one diocese in northern France one priest is serving 27 parishes. He drops by on rare occasions to offer Mass and consecrate some hosts. For the rest of the time the people run their church themselves. In 2001 the diocese of Nice had to reduce its 265 parishes to 47.

A recently created parish, Nôtre Dame de l’Espérance, runs along the Mediterranean coast, and has five churches. Where there were five priests now there is just one but each church has an appointed lay person, a relais local, whose duty is to run both church and parish and perform almost all functions except uttering the words of consecration and administering those sacraments that only a priest is allowed do.

A principal function of the relais local is to conduct a Sunday Communion service in the absence of a priest. It is a Mass without the consecration. And there is frequently no priest at funerals there any more.

Describing all of this in an article for this newspaper in 2008, former Dominican priest David Rice recalled being at one such funeral at the Église Sacré Coeur in Beaulieu, conducted by the relais locale.

“She received the coffin. There were words of welcome, the singing of hymns, a short eulogy of the deceased, readings from scripture, a brief reflection by the relais, the lighting of candles beside the coffin, a blessing of the coffin with holy water and prayers for the deceased. It lasted about half an hour. There was no Mass, as there was no priest. But there wasn’t a Communion service either.”

He said a woman was general manager of the five churches there and lay people conducted parish visitations, attended to counselling and pre-marriage instruction, attended the sick, bringing Communion, acted as chaplains to hospitals and retirement homes and in some areas to scout and youth groups. Also it was lay people who, almost exclusively, imparted the faith.

But all of this is to see matters entirely within present Vatican parameters. Who knows, but maybe by 2032 there may be women priests in the Catholic Church as well as married – male and female – priests. Where ministry is concerned, allowing women priests has been a great boon for the Protestant churches, and not just in numbers.

Indeed it is not beyond imagination that men who left the Catholic priesthood to marry may yet be allowed resume their priestly role in the years ahead. Possibly they might be allowed join that new personal prelature in the Catholic Church set up by Pope Benedict for married Anglican priests who disagree with that church’s allowing of women bishops. After all, what is the difference?

But all of this is to skirt around a more fundamental issue: the great ignorance of Irish Catholics when it comes to their faith. It beggars belief that so many Irish Catholics, the great majority of whom have attended Catholic schools from the age of four to 18, know so little about their faith.

A 2007 survey conducted by Lansdowne Market Research for the Iona Institute and Evangelical Alliance Ireland found that almost one-third (32 per cent) of those between the ages of 15 and 24 who were surveyed could not say where Jesus was born (Bethlehem).

Just 15 per cent of them knew transubstantiation (whereby bread and wine is transformed into the body and blood of Christ) was the term used to describe what takes place at the Eucharist during Mass.

In general it found that knowledge of their faith was greatest among those over 65 and lowest in the 15-24 age group.

More than a third (35 per cent) did not know what the church celebrated on Easter Sunday morning (the resurrection of Christ), 62 per cent did not know how many gospels there were (four) and 62 per cent did not know how many sacraments there were in the Catholic Church (seven).

It suggests there was a lot to be said for old-time catechism classes. Clearly, and as enunciated many times by Ireland’s Catholic bishops, a new evangelisation is called for in Ireland.

New St Patricks are needed.

Series concluded