A Lenten pastoral letter from the Bishop of the Diocese of Achonry, Ireland, is calling attention to the dwindling number of priests in the diocese. As the diocese marks 10 years without any Catholic men pursuing a vocation to the priesthood, Bishop Paul Dempsey outlined some of the challenges they will face going forward, but remained positive in his outlook for the future.
The bishop opened his letter with a Lenten greeting, noting that the 40 days of fasting and abstinence, which the faithful are currently undertaking, are symbolic not just of the 40 days Christ spent in the desert, but also of the 40 years in which the Israelites were left to wander the “wilderness” in exile. He compared the latter to the position in which the Church in Ireland finds itself, and presented a variety of challenges the diocese currently faces:
“This journey is also reflected in our own Diocese at this time. We face many challenges that need our time and attention. The recent feedback from our synodal gatherings around the Diocese named many of these challenges such as: participation in the leadership of the Church, Adult Faith Formation, the role of women in the Church, Young people and their relationship with faith, and those who find themselves marginalized.”
While he noted that the diocese is taking steps to address and revitalize these stagnant ministries and areas of Church life, he also noted that a primary concern has become the lack of vocations in the diocese, a problem that has become all too common in Ireland. Bishop Dempsey explained that 2023 marks 10 years since the last priestly ordination took place within the diocese and there is currently not one single seminarian studying for ordination.
Furthermore, the prelate called attention to the increasing age profile of the priests they have. With some priests beginning to age out, they have fewer priests than ever. In 2022, every parish in the diocese had a resident priest, but this is no longer true. Bishop Dempsey shared a bleak prediction that by 2033 the Diocese of Achonry expects that they will only have a dozen priests to serve their 23 parishes.
“It is important that we are fully aware of this reality and its implications. We have never been here before,” Bishop Dempsey wrote.
His letter went on to explore some ways in which the diocese will adjust in the coming months in order to address these problems and spark a renewal. He noted that the familiar ways in which the faithful have experienced parish life may considerably change in the coming years and, in response to concerns over these changes, he called on all parishes to form or renew their Parish Pastoral Council, in February.
“The Parish Pastoral Council has a crucial role in the life of the parish and the diocese.” Bishop Dempsey added, “They are groups co-responsible for the life of the Church, invited to discern through prayer and reflection where God is calling. This is done in a spirit of unity and collaboration between the bishop, priests, and people.”
In addition to reformation of Parish Councils, the bishop called on the faithful of the diocese to think of creative ways to share the faith with the younger generations. He pointed to the guidance of Pope Francis in his Evangelii Gaudium:
“I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities.” (Evangelii Gaudium 33).
The bishop concluded his letter by calling on the faithful to be “bold and creative” in the coming months and years as they attempt to reverse the course in which they are headed. He noted that this is a unique opportunity to “listen to each other.”
“I have no doubt it will be a challenging process for us all and we may be tempted, like the Israelites, to return to that which we perceive as safe and familiar. However, this will not serve the mission to which we are all called as disciples. The Lord remained with the Israelites in the ‘wilderness.’ Through faith and trust they persevered and the Lord, in time, revealed the direction to go,” the bishop concluded.