More than a third of Irish Catholic priests are aged over 60, survey finds

Priests’ representative body wants better engagement over growing challenges being faced

The grim situation faced by the Catholic Church in Ireland where its priests are concerned is underlined in a new survey conducted by the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP). Presented at the association’s recent annual general meeting in Athlone, it found that 2,116 priests serve in Ireland’s 26 dioceses, in 1,355 parishes and at more than 2,650 churches or Mass centres.

Of the 2,116, a total 299 (almost 15 per cent) are over 75 and still working and 547 (over 25 per cent) are between 60 and 75. Just 52 (2.5 per cent) of serving Catholic priests in Ireland, meanwhile, are under 40.

A total 189 priests are from outside the diocese where they serve, with the great majority of these from abroad.

A total 464 priests are in the 40-60 age category. There are also 115 permanent deacons in Ireland. Meanwhile, 47 men are at various stages of studies for priesthood at the national seminary in Maynooth.

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The survey results highlight the scale of the challenge facing the Catholic Church at a time when just 10 seminarians have begun their 2022-2023 academic programme/priestly formation for Irish dioceses. Last autumn nine men began the programme/formation.

According to the Irish Catholic Directory for 2022, official directory of the Irish Catholic Church, 166 priests died in 2019; 223 in 2020; and an estimated 131 died in 2021, leading to a loss through death of 520 priests for the three years (inclusive) to 2021.

Priests are asked to do more for longer, and sometimes against their wishes... and I think when you get to the age of 75 your wishes to retire should be respected

—  Fr Tim Hazelwood of the ACP leadership team

The latest figures for seminarians bring to 56 the total number of men studying for the priesthood in those 26 Catholic dioceses. The new students are currently undertaking their propaedeutic (preparatory) programme in Dundalk’s Redemptoris Mater seminary, at the Spain’s Royal English College in Valladolid and the Royal Scots College in Salamanca.

On completion of this propaedeutic stage the seminarian, on receipt of a nomination from his bishop, may then apply to a seminary to continue his priestly formation for an Irish diocese.

In 2018 the Congregation for Clergy in Rome, which has responsibility for seminary formation, strongly recommended to bishops around the world that a propaedeutic programme be established for new candidates who wished to be certain of their priestly vocation.

Those who successfully complete the course will continue training for the priesthood at the national seminary in St Patrick’s College Maynooth.

The recent survey findings were presented by Fr Tim Hazelwood of the ACP leadership team who described them as a “snapshot” but said “the reality is that priests are asked to do more for longer, and sometimes against their wishes... and I think when you get to the age of 75 your wishes to retire should be respected”.

He also spoke of the ACP’s fruitless attempts to persuade the Catholic Bishops’ Conference to set up an arbitration panel in each province to address difficulties priests may face. “Most of the bishops in Ireland are very good at supporting their priests,” he said. “Most are very just, very fair, very supportive but there are a minority who are not that way.”

All the ACP wanted was “fairness and justice and a bit of charity and support”, he said.

He recalled how the association had written to the Bishops’ Conference last March about their arbitration proposal and the response from the bishops was that such a body was already in place, referring to the Council of Priests in each diocese. Fr Hazelwood could not recall priests’ difficulties ever being discussed at meetings of these councils.

The ACP had corresponded with the Bishops’ Conference again, he said, detailing the sort of difficulties such an arbitration panel might address. They gave examples of “four specific cases”, he said. One concerned “a priest being forced into laicisation because he’s gay”, while another “very angry” priest had been out of ministry for 3½ years before it was established he had no case to answer.

Another was an elderly priest in his mid 80s, who had been in prison, and was now “in a homeless shelter in Dublin”. A fourth priest had been doorstepped by two men looking for money who said they would accuse him if he did not pay up. This priest “couldn’t go to diocese so he came to the ACP”, Fr Hazelwood said.

The ACP arbitration proposal was “still on the table”, he said.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times