Catholic priests in Ireland: A ‘lost tribe’
Guilt by association is unfair and unjust
The lot of the Irish Catholic priest has rarely been more difficult. It might be argued that even in the persecuted past they were in a better place. Then they were revered as heroic for bringing spiritual comfort to the faithful at the risk of dungeon, fire and sword. Not so today.
As Fr Brendan Hoban of the Association of Catholic Priests memorably put it at their annual general meeting in Athlone on Wednesday, they feel “reviled, insulted, disrespected”.
Among “the last priests in Ireland” with “a gale force wind in our faces”, he spoke of their loneliness, the high incidence of depression among them, the worrying levels of suicide.
They grow old, with an average age approaching 70. Increasingly they are isolated with few young curates or deacons to assist them even as the workload increases while colleague numbers dwindle. Entitled to retire at 75, many continue working out of loyalty, out of a sense of obligation or duty. Some feel pressured to do so. They work until they drop.
Ireland’s “lost tribe” of Catholic priests, as Fr Hoban put it, are traumatised. The contrast between the life of a priest when most entered more than 40 years ago and now might even be described as extreme. This is due in no small part to the scandal of child abuse in the Church and how it was systematically covered up at an institutional level by some bishops and religious superiors.
The vast majority of priests were as ignorant of the abuse activities of colleagues as can be the case in families with an abuser in their midst. But, unlike innocent family members, priests have suffered grievously because of the crimes of their brothers and superiors.
Guilt by association is unfair and unjust. Most entered the priesthood with the highest of ideals and have served their people accordingly. For many it is a personal tragedy to arrive in their latter years crushed by demands, lonely, and full of doubt about the worth of a lifetime’s commitment and effort.
They deserve compassion and support. For most have done their communities and our society tremendous service.