Catholic primate recalls challenges of priesthood in 1990s

Eamon Martin tells of ‘downcast’ atmosphere among young priests at tumultuous time

Archbishop Eamon Martin: “The days when we could consider the priest as a lone ranger are long past.” Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Archbishop Eamon Martin: “The days when we could consider the priest as a lone ranger are long past.” Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire


The Catholic primate, Archbishop Eamon Martin, has told a conference in Maynooth how ill-prepared he and his generation of priests were for the world into which they were ordained in the 1980s. He was ordained in 1987.

He had often since wondered whether any kind of priestly training could have fully prepared him for what lay ahead: “The seismic shift that would occur in the early 1990s in Ireland’s relationship with church and with priests.”

There was “the horrendous and shocking child sex abuse scandals; the challenges swept in by a wave of secularisation; the digital revolution, and arrival of the internet and social media; the tendency in society towards rampant consumerism, individualism and relativism.”

He went on to describe the other issues they had to face: “The struggle to live a celibate life in a hypersexualised culture; the challenge of maintaining good physical and mental health and wellbeing in an increasingly rushed, stressful and pressurised environment; the decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious life bringing increased demands and a certain loss of morale for those in ministry; enhanced expectations regarding governance and accountability for the temporal goods of the church.”

Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, he said, “Many of us newly ordained priests in late-1980s Ireland talked together about all that was happening – sometimes [with] our faces downcast”.

“In our early years of priesthood, with so much change in what was once a familiar role and surroundings for priests, one might more accurately have spoken of a ‘crisis of compass’ or ‘loss of bearings’,” he said.

Lifelong process

For these reasons, he felt any consideration of priestly formation must see formation as a lifelong process. “Who knows what challenges lie ahead for today’s seminarians? How might we best prepare them for the changes that will transform the world in 20 or 30 years’ time but which cannot even be dreamt of today? To put it in business terms: how can we ‘future-proof’ formation?”

He was delivering the opening address on Friday at the International Symposium on Models of Priestly Formation in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.

Last year the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy published The Gift of the Priestly Vocation, a guiding document for the formation of future priests in the Catholic Church. It is the focus of presentations and discussions at the conference, which continues until Sunday.

A priest can never consider himself to be “definitively formed”, the archbishop said, adding, “A priest is certainly not the man who arrives into a parish, perfectly packaged, with all the answers. There will often be people who are more qualified than he in facing particular problems, and the new challenges that emerge may well be beyond his seminary formation. This is why his relationship with Christ is paramount.

“The priest must always remember that he has come from the Christian community and upon ordination returns to this community,” he added. “The days when we could consider the priest as a ‘lone ranger’ or a ‘rugged individual’ are long past,” he said.