Was the church too comfortable, too aligned with political and social power?
We have 53 diocesan priests with no one under 40 and no one studying to be a priest
By the time children baptised this year reach confirmation age our diocese will be a changed place with many parishes without a resident priest. Photograph: Istock
Since becoming Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnois three-and-a-half years ago I have spent my time getting to know the diocese, its people, its parishes, its priests and its ways. When visiting our parishes I am always impressed by the number of people who are involved in church activities.
These include ministers of the word, extraordinary ministers of holy communion, members of parish pastoral councils, parish finance committees, ushers, altar servers, safeguarding groups, eucharistic adoration groups, sacramental preparation teams, in addition to the long-established choirs and the committees and individuals who maintain churches in such good order.
There are many other invaluable local initiatives that are undertaken such as hospitality around funerals, raising awareness of local identity through events and publications, and outreach and support to those who have various pastoral and spiritual needs.
I decided within a few days of arriving that I would visit each priest in his home and have a cup of tea with him in his kitchen. I have met each priest many times and been impressed by the range of characters, their work and interests. Above all I am impressed by the amount of pastoral care they show to so many people.
By 2030 more than half of our priests will have retired.
I am well aware this is a declining body of priests, ageing as the years pass, and most alarmingly with no obvious signs of replacements on the way. We have 53 diocesan priests with no one under 40 and no one studying to be a priest.
By 2030 more than half of our priests will have retired. By the time children baptised this year reach confirmation age our diocese will be a changed place with many parishes without a resident priest.
We continue to pray for and promote vocations to priesthood and religious life. That is vital because it is the Lord’s work; he is with us in change and will provide opportunities for the local church communities to continue to flourish in new ways.
One of the strengths of the Irish church is a strong sense of local identity. People are proud of their local area and have a strong sense of belonging. This feature of community life may prove to be an important factor in how the church addresses the declining number of clergy.
By engaging more with each other we can take on responsibility for the formation, promotion and practice of the faith at local level in the changing circumstances in which we find ourselves. A time of decline in one area can be an opportunity for growth in other areas.
Considering how the decline in priestly numbers happened and its context is also part of the solution
We know that the number of priests is increasing around the world but not in Europe and certainly not in Ireland. Being aware of and considering how the decline in priestly numbers happened and its context is also part of the solution.
Perhaps the church was too comfortable, too aligned with political and social power, and took its eye off the radical elements in the gospel? Then there was the awful, sickening abuse some of its members visited on children and how that was managed. These are some of the factors in the decline and must always be borne in mind.
I think that parish pastoral councils are a key to the future. Many are very involved in identifying and addressing pastoral needs in the local area. The pastoral councils have another perspective on the role of the priest, another perspective on what is needed in parishes.
I think that they are rising to the challenge and will reinvigorate our church.
What will our church be like when those baptised this year come to confirmation age in 12 years’ time? In this diocese we will have less than half of the number of priests we have now. So what will it be like? I hope it will be more vibrant, kinder, more inclusive and animated by the Holy Spirit.
We are an Easter people, with hope in our hearts. We are Easter people with a message of Good News for all. It is for all people, not any particular group. It is a message that gives hope and energy and a sense of God being with us.
Francis Duffy is Catholic Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnois