Where the Catholic Church in Ireland is concerned “the one certainty is the ongoing and sustained decline both in the numbers who practice and in the numbers of those who answer the Lord’s call to priesthood and religious life,” Archbishop of Tuam Francis Duffy has said.
“All trends are dramatically downwards with no turning point in sight. I suggest you look at your priest, he may be the last in a long line of resident pastors and may not be replaced,” he said.
“I suggest you look at your church, you may be lucky to have a Sunday Mass or several, but for how much longer? I suggest you look at your fellow parishioners at Mass, who among your neighbours will continue to be the new leaders and carry on pastoral work in your parish, alongside a much smaller number of clergy? Who among them will lead prayer services and keep faith alive and active through catechesis and other initiatives?,” he said.
“Some may think I have painted a somewhat dismal picture. It is the current reality as I see it, and as I know many of you see it too. While we must face it and work with it, we must not lose hope,” he said.
It was “a time of decline in some respect but it is a time of great hope. Opportunities are there to be seized,” he said. It was “the best of times to be a priest, challenging – yes, with risks – yes, with God on our side – yes”.
It was “a time for faith, faith into action, faith into reaching out,” he said.
Noting that the Catholic Church in Ireland “has formally entered a synodal process” in which the faithful were being consulted on its future, he said he is “convinced that this is the way to go and it will be a fruitful new departure”.
But, he warned “the synodal process is a pathway not a runway.” In saying that “some people wondered if I was dampening down expectations, I said I was being realistic,” he said.
The synodal process was “a new chapter for the Catholic Church in this country. It means learning as we journey together all the while being guided by the Holy Spirit. It means being patient with each other and respectful of differing views, being adventurous and willing to value the new, as well as the traditional, and it calls for being focused.”
There were “no quick fix solutions or approaches as we reflect on and consider our Church. Instead we journey together on a path that will have many twists and turns and will not always be easy.”
The Archbishop was speaking as a report is being prepared for submission to Rome by August 15th next as part of preparations there for a Synod in October 2023.
The report is a synthesis of many radical views expressed by Irish Catholics following widespread consultations in the Church’s 26 dioceses across the island where laity called for fundamental change, including the ordination of women, a removal of mandatory celibacy for priests, and for a more inclusive Church more with regard to members of the LGBTI+ community, the divorced and remarried, single parents, and cohabiting couples.
Last month the Catholic Primate Archbishop Eamon Martin warned against “divisiveness and polarisation of views” as preparations continue on the report to be submitted to Rome this month. It was “vitally important,” he said, not to allow the discussion about the synod in Rome next year to “degenerate into a kind of them and us adversarial process which loses sight of our shared belonging within the Church of Christ”.
Concerns have been expressed in Ireland, and elsewhere, that these pre-synodal discussions throughout the Catholic world could damage, not create, communion in the church, even as the synod would “not diminish the teaching authority of the pope and the bishops, but rather affirm and enhance it,” Archbishop Martin said.