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Where Have All The Irish Priests Gone?

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As the number of clergy in Ireland continues to fall, practical priests look to build a culture of vocation

There are few more iconic figures in the landscape of the American Catholic imagination than the “Irish priest.” The Church in Ireland saw so many applicants to the priesthood during the middle decades of the 20th century that it had to export them, whether to the missions in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world or to parishes in Britain and the United States. Now, though, decades of vocational decline have taken a toll on the Church in Ireland, with numbers continuing to drop and some priests predicting a “Eucharistic famine” within 20 years.

The Statistical Yearbook of the Church shows that whereas there were 5,362 priests in Ireland in 2002, within a decade this number had dropped to 4,688, a fall of more than 12.5 percent. The immediate future is far from encouraging: In 2006, the Irish Church saw 22 ordinations, compared to 171 ordinations or religious professions in 1984, and since 2007, the average number of men starting in Ireland’s national seminary at Maynooth’s St Patrick’s College has been just under 16. This year saw just 14 seminarians beginning their studies for Ireland's diocesan priesthood.

Current figures must, of course, be bolstered by those entering religious orders, but matters are little better there. As Father Gerard Dunne, vocations director of the Irish Dominicans, said in mid-September, when six young men made solemn profession and committed themselves to spending their lives as Dominican friars, “the large group of brothers making solemn profession should not be considered an exceptional increase in the vocations statistics for the Irish Dominicans. The average annual intake of the province remains less than three and the average number of priestly ordinations for the same period remains slightly more than one per year.”

The national outlook, then, is bleak. Father Brendan Hoban of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), which represents more than a fifth of Ireland’s clergy, told RTE radio this week that “there's mathematical certainty now that in 10 to 15 — certainly in 20 — years, there are going to be very few priests left in Ireland, and most of them will be in their 60s and 70s, so we feel that something needs to be done very, very quickly.”

These figures should not be dismissed as mere hysteria. Father Bernard Healy, a curate of the Diocese of Kerry who studied actuarial science before training for the priesthood, estimates that “if trends remain unchanged, you have to imagine a situation where for every seven active diocesan priests in Ireland today, there will be just one in 40 years' time.”

Father Conor Cunningham, a parish priest in the Diocese of Galway with responsibility for four churches, describes his position as “a harbinger of the squad-car mobile sacristy priest” that could become the norm in Ireland. Father Healy says that real thought is needed to prevent the reduction of priests to “sacramental dispensers.” Warning against proposed solutions that “aim merely at maintaining the institutional status quo and manufacturing clergy from laity in order to keep the machine ticking over,” Father Healy argues that pastoral plans should be firmly rooted in the Council’s vision of ministry and stewardship. “We needn’t fear,” he says, “the notion of priesthood as leadership exercised in conformity to Christ the Shepherd.”

Armagh’s Archbishop Eamon Martin, Primate of All Ireland, has said he is willing to engage with anyone who is concerned about Ireland’s vocations crisis, but it seems unlikely that the ACP leadership’s message will differ significantly from that given when they met with Ireland’s bishops on June 4. The bishops, according to Father Hoban, accepted the reality of the vocations crisis, but when asked what their ‘Plan B’ was, they said that “they hadn't any plan B; basically, they were going to encourage vocations and were going to pray for them.” 

The ACP responded by saying that “this hadn't worked, it wasn't working, and the probability was it wouldn't work,” so they suggested that married men should be ordained, that priests who had left the priesthood to marry should be invited back, and that women should be ordained as deacons. 

Father Dunne believes the ACP proposals are not very realistic, and that the ACP could achieve far more if its members strove to promote the joy of priestly life and encouraged their congregations to pray for vocations. Lamenting what he describes as the ACP’s tendency “to present a platform of negativity,” he agrees with fellow Dominican Father Brian McKevitt that in some ways the ACP is “in itself a cause for discouraging vocations.”

Certainly, he says, the Irish Church is torn between two distinct ways of thinking about vocations. One, he says, is to “give up hope and revert to unworkable solutions,” and the other is to “keep on working at it.” 

Diligent and prayerful work will pay dividends, insists Father Dunne, who says that “if we are not on our knees praying for vocations, then we can be sure that there will be no vocations.” In an open letter last year to Ireland’s bishops, he dismissed the very notion of a “vocations crisis,” arguing that “when we say there is a crisis, we are suggesting that somehow God has stopped calling his people to be religious and priests. This, of course, is patently untrue. God has never stopped calling. Perhaps we have stopped listening."

Calling for Ireland’s bishops to speak positively, honestly, and frequently about vocations, he argued that vocations directors should be better supported, and that bishops should encourage their clergy to “to make a supreme effort” to give those who might be called to the priesthood an understanding of the “richness” of the priestly vocation. Pointing to an absence of online promotion, Father Dunne said that in his experience, “over 90 per cent of new enquirers come through this medium,” and that the Irish Church is denying itself “a whole cohort of potential vocations by neglecting these opportunities.”

Father Healy thinks Father Dunne’s arguments have merit, and that it would be worthwhile for every diocesan vocations director to be able to devote at least two or three full days per week to vocations work. Such work, he said, citing the kind of things that are increasingly common in English dioceses, could entail preaching at Masses throughout the dioceses, vocational retreats, participation in diocesan and national youth events, media work, presence at careers fairs, and meeting with candidates. 

In particular, he says, visits to secondary schools would be especially important to build a “culture of discernment,” in which seeds are planted that may come to fruition later. “If we're not encouraging every possible candidate to discern,” he says, “we're missing out hugely.”

“Of course,” he adds, “how religion is taught in the schools needs to be supportive of this.” While vocations should be sought and promoted, any such quest should be in the context of a broader renewal. Suggesting that the level of priestly vocations in Ireland is consistent with the level of success the Irish Church is experiencing in forming knowledgeable and enthusiastic disciples of Jesus Christ, Father Healy says that “the more fundamental problem is a lack of laity."

Although census figures show that 84 percent of people in the Republic of Ireland identify as Catholic, Father Healy says, "My own sense is that the proportion of my age group who could be described as regularly practicing Catholics is less than 10 percent. There simply isn't the pool of practicing Catholics under 40 (say) to draw priests from. The real crisis is one of faith — the vocations crisis is a side-effect.”

“You're not going to draw priests from the nominally Catholic or the irregularly practicing,” says Father Healy, “without the re-evangelization of those people.” 

Greg Daly covers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.

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