Shortage of priests


SPEAKING IN Dublin recently the Catholic bishop of Killaloe, Dr Willie Walsh, recalled how, of his own 1952 Leaving Certificate class, 40 per cent went on to study for the priesthood. Vocations were so high then that between a third and a half of priests went on the missions. In 1961, remarking on this extraordinary phenomenon Pope John XXIII said “Ireland, that beloved country, is the most fruitful of mothers in this respect. In the number of priests, diocesan and regular, and in the number of nuns and sisters to which she has given birth, she is second to none.”

Almost 50 years later, all has changed. The number of priests is in serious decline. The average age of the Irish Catholic priest today is put at 63. Each must retire at 75. Soon, there will not be enough priests to serve all Catholic parishes.

The reasons for this rapid decline will be debated for years to come but consensus is gathering around a view that in Ireland, as elsewhere, its beginning can be traced to the 1968 Humanae Vitae encyclical. It banned artificial means of contraception, though a great majority on the Vatican Commission set up to address the issue recommended otherwise. It was “a watershed” moment Bishop Willie Walsh said last week. Whereas disobeying church teaching was as old as the institution, that 1968 decision was the beginning of people questioning the teachings of the Church itself, he said. In the Catholic home, traditionally the primary source of vocations, it was the beginning of a decline of confidence in church leadership. This, in time, led to ever-growing doubt about the mandatory celibacy requirement for men who wished to be Catholic priests. An RTÉ poll in 2003 found that 75 per cent of Irish people opposed it. But it doesn’t matter. As Catholics are frequently reminded, the church is not a democracy and, certainly during this papacy, there will be no change on celibacy.

It means that in Ireland an ageing priesthood must shoulder an ever-heavier workload as parishes are clustered with fewer personnel to serve them. It means too that the laity is assuming a far greater role in running parish and church. This trend may extend to laity conducting funerals and baptisms. In some few Irish dioceses a permanent (male) diaconate is being prepared to conduct all liturgies, except celebration of the Eucharist. What we are witnessing is the death of a clerically-dominated Catholic Church which has existed since Victorian times. It is being replaced by something altogether more lay-oriented, and where the priest’s role is almost entirely spiritual.