Laity will adopt duties of declining clerical caste

 

ANALYSIS:In the second of our series looking at what things might be like five years hence, we consider the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland, where ordinations have collapsed along with its moral authority

THERE WAS a poignancy in the air at the ordination of three men as Redemptorist priests in St Joseph’s Church, Dundalk, on Sunday December 6th. In the front pew a female relative of one of the men wept copiously as the ceremony progressed.

It was conducted by the Catholic primate Cardinal Seán Brady, who was clearly still reeling from the findings of the Murphy report, published on November 26th, while also attending to his duties. He seemed exhausted. In a momentary lapse he forgot the name of one of the young men. Then, remembering, he commented it was “Seán, the same name as my own”. There was a laugh from the congregation.

The three men made up the largest number to be ordained at once for the Redemptorist congregation in more than 10 years. They were Brian Nolan (31) from Limerick, Tony Rice (31) from Belfast, and Seán Duggan (30) from Galway.

They are no starry-eyed neophytes. Brian Nolan, a former electronics student at Limerick Institute of Technology, admitted that when he told people that he was in the religious life, “it can be a conversation stopper”. But still, he didn’t “feel the need to hold back from telling people what I’m doing”.

Tony Rice worked in a bank for four years. He said the difficulties in the church were symptomatic of a general lack of leadership in a number of areas in our society. “People have reason to be disappointed with several institutions right now – banks, politicians, the church and so many others . . . We need strong, just and accountable leadership to renew our vision and our hope in humanity,” he said.

Seán Duggan gave up corporate law to become a priest. “The choices I have made are not knee-jerk reactions. They have been thought about and talked about over a period of eight years’ training,” he said. “The questions that people throw to me such as celibacy, inept church leadership, married priests and more, are all questions that I’ve thought about myself. It’s not as if I live in a bubble cut off from reality,” he said.

On Sunday November 15th Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said his archdiocese will soon have barely enough priests to serve its 199 parishes. “We have 46 priests over 80 and only two less than 35 years of age. In a very short time we will just have the bare number of priests required to have one active priest for each of our 199 parishes,” he said.

Last April he said there were now 10 times more priests over 70 than under 40 in Dublin. It also emerged at the time that the number of priests in Tuam’s Catholic archdiocese will fall by 30 per cent over the next four years, leaving most parishes there with just one resident priest.

Meanwhile, writing in the Furrow magazine last June, Fr Brendan Hoban, parish priest at St Muredach’s Cathedral, in Ballina, Co Mayo, said of his own Killala diocese 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”.

He continued “the difficult truth is that priests will have effectively disappeared in Ireland in two to three decades”.

For people of a certain age the very idea of an Ireland without Catholic priests is, truly, beyond imagination. This is not hard to understand. Speaking to the Association of European Journalists in Dublin on November 13th the Catholic Bishop of Killaloe, Willie Walsh, recalled that of the 50 students in his Leaving Cert class of 1952, 20 went on for the priesthood. Vocations were so high then that between a third and a half of Irish priests went on the missions.

But, almost 50 years later, all has changed. The number of priests in Ireland is in serious decline. The average age of the Irish Catholic priest today is put at 63. For those who are members of religious congregations the average age is in the early 70s.

Each priest must retire at 75. As the Americans say, you do the math!

At the end of September last there were 77 men training for the priesthood at Maynooth. Of that number, 36 entered this year, an increase of 12 on the 24 who entered in 2008.

It is believed to be a blip which won’t alter the downward trend. Meanwhile, for every 10 men who begin training for the priesthood, at Maynooth five or six become priests.

All of which means that the coming decade will see profound change in Catholic Church structures and practices on this island. It will also see the end of the clerical caste which has dominated Irish Catholicism since Victorian times. They will give way, of necessity, to a more lay-directed institution with fewer-but-bigger parishes in fewer-but-bigger dioceses.

An indication of what is to come was illustrated in the Catholic diocese of Waterford and Lismore last June. That month saw the first ordination to the Catholic priesthood there in eight years when Fr Michael Toomey (39) became a priest.

That same month in that same diocese sacristan Ken Hackett conducted a Liturgy of the Word with Holy Communion instead of daily Mass at Ardfinnan parish in Co Tipperary. The priest, Fr Robert Power, was away. Mr Hackett is a minister of the Eucharist and a minister of the word and may do as he did according to Vatican norms published in the early 1970s. Women may also conduct such liturgies. The response to him from parishioners was “very, very good”, he told The Irish Times.

Catholic Ireland is embarking on a path others have already taken.

In one diocese in northern France there is only one priest to serve 27 parishes. It means the priest drops by on occasion in each parish to offer Mass and consecrate hosts. The rest of the time parishioners run their own church.

In 2001 the diocese of Nice had to reduce its 265 parishes to 47. The recently created parish there of Nôtre Dame de l’Espérance has five churches.

It had five priests; now there is one. Each church has an appointed lay person, the relais locale, whose duty is to run both church and parish, and perform almost all functions of a priest except celebrating the Eucharist and administering sacraments only a priest can.

A principal function of the relais is to conduct a Sunday Communion service in the absence of the priest, a “Mass” without the consecration. There is frequently no priest at funerals there any more.

Writing about this in The Irish Times on July 8th, former Dominican priest and author David Rice recalled how, at the Église Sacré Coeur in Beaulieu “I attended one such funeral, conducted by the relais locale for the church. 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.”

He spoke to a woman appointed there as general manager of the parish with its five churches. While her official title was économe, her job was more about administration than money. Unpaid herself, she managed a payroll for nine people, including cleaners, organists and two parish secretaries.

Other lay people – men and women – were active in priestly roles: parish visitation; counselling; pre-marriage instruction; attending the sick; chaplaincies to hospitals and retirement homes; to scout and youth groups. And it is lay people who, almost exclusively, impart the faith to children.

In 10 years, this way of things is likely to be very familiar to Ireland’s Catholic faithful. And that is believed to be likely even if both the mandatory celibacy rule is dropped and women are allowed become Catholic priests.

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent

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