Catholic Church has failed to prepare for a priestless Ireland, warns Cork priest

Importing clergy from abroad will not provide a proper solution, says Fr Bernard Cotter

No long term strategic planning by the Irish bishops, said Fr Bernard Cotter. Photograph: iStock

No long term strategic planning by the Irish bishops, said Fr Bernard Cotter. Photograph: iStock


The Catholic Church in Ireland has failed to make any proper preparation for the priestless future awaiting it, an Irish priest has warned.

Fr Bernard Cotter, Parish Priest of Murragh and Templemartin in the Diocese of Cork and Ross, said bishops are instead happy to opt for “sticking plaster solutions” such as importing clergy from abroad.

There appeared to be no long term strategic planning by the Irish bishops given the drastic decline in vocations and this has contributed to widespread disillusionment among the Irish clergy, he said.

Writing on the eve of Pope Francis’s visit to Ireland in this week’s edition of the London-published Catholic magazine, The Tablet, Fr Cotter contrasts the Ireland that will greet the current pontiff this weekend with that which welcomed his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in 1979.

Fr Bernard Cotter. Photograph: Diocese of Cork and Ross
Fr Bernard Cotter. Photograph: Diocese of Cork and Ross

Fr Cotter recalled when he was ordained in Maynooth in 1984, Cork and Ross had 27 clerical students in Maynooth whereas today the diocese has just one student preparing for the priesthood while other dioceses have seen “similar levels of cataclysmic decline”.

In addition, many of those priests ordained in the 1960s, when dioceses were producing six or seven priests per year, are coming to the end of their active service and many will retire during this decade with on average just one priest a year being ordained to replace them, he said.

Dunmanway parish

He instanced the case of his own native parish of Dunmanway in West Cork. In 1979, when he set out as a 19 year old to see Pope John Paul II in Galway, it had a parish priest, two curates and a chaplain to a local convent and school but today has just two priests and a lay chaplain.

There, as everywhere, Mass-going numbers have fallen dramatically, although the number of those seeking baptism and a church funeral has not, which, combined with population growth, has resulted in a doubling of the workload for the two priests who remain in the parish, he noted.

“Ireland faces a priestless future, for which no preparations are being made. One would imagine that, being realists, our bishops would be planning for this very different Church . . . and the formation for lay people to minister and lead in parishes in the future,” he said.

But this is not the case and if schools were to take no part in the religious education of children, then “an army of catechists” would have to be found, formed and employed by parishes, and “preparation for this eventuality is spotty at best” with few parishes having put funds aside for such a scenario.

‘Sticking-plaster solutions’

Instead of planning for this obvious change and embracing it, the church insists on prayers for vocations and opts instead for “sticking-plaster solutions . . . such as importing clergy from vocation-rich dioceses abroad”, he warned.

“We older priests see the writing on the wall. The faith of the people appears to have declined despite the best efforts of most of my contemporaries to be caring pastors (and) that strong emphasis on pastoral care found in the Irish priesthood continues,” he said.

“But, it seems to me, it is under threat from some of our younger ordinandi (those training to be priests), whose emphasis in preaching seems to have shifted from love to fear. Will this result in a diminishing group of firm believers, as they apparently intend – or no believers at all?”

Fr Cotter said that while the Irish hierarchy was doing little to address the situation, Ireland was also ill-served by Rome with Pope Francis apparently proposing to appoint bishops more intent on serving Rome’s needs rather than the people and priests of the Irish Church.

Recent revelations of attempts by senior Vatican figures to prevent church records from being given to the civil powers as part of their investigations into clerical sex abuse were disappointing but not surprising and did nothing to address the disillusionment felt by so many priests in Ireland, he said.