David Sharrock, Ireland Correspondent
February 27, 2008
Ireland is running out of priests at such a rate that their numbers will have dropped by two thirds in the next 20 years
Ireland, a country that used to export its Catholic clergy around the world, is running out of priests at such a rate that their numbers will have dropped by two thirds in the next 20 years, leaving parishes up and down the land vacant.
The decline of Catholic Ireland, for decades the Pope’s favourite bastion of faith in Europe, has been regularly predicted, as the economic successes of the Celtic Tiger brought growing secularisation. But new figures have starkly set out the fate of the Irish priesthood if action is not taken by the Church to reverse the trend.
One-hundred and sixty priests died last year but only nine were ordained. Figures for nuns were even more dramatic, with the deaths of 228 nuns and only two taking final vows for service in religious life.
Based upon these figures The Irish Catholic newspaper predicts that the number of priests will drop from the current 4,752 to about 1,500 by 2028.
The decline in vocations is attributed to the loss of the Church’s authority after a string of sex-abuse scandals. In 1994 the Government collapsed over the mishandling of the case of a paedophile priest Brendan Smyth.
The scandals broke a dam of silence, prompting apologies from both the Church and the Government for the abuse of children and women who passed through religious institutions. An estimated €1 billion (£750,000) are being paid out in compensation to victims.
Regular church attendance, which was at 90 per cent at the start of the 1990s, has suffered a collapse, mitigated partially in recent years by the mass influx of Polish workers.
The priestly age profile is creating another dilemma because most priests are already close to normal retirement age. The average age of Irish priests is currently 61.
Religious commentators are calling on the Church authorities to convene a national synod to address the crisis. Some are even challenging the vow of celibacy as unnecessary. “The time has come for the Church in Ireland to confront this problem much more seriously,” The Irish Catholic said.
Father Eamonn Bourke, director of vocations in Dublin, said: “These latest statistics bring the problems we are facing into sharp focus.
“It is impossible to argue with statistics and the situation is very grave. For a long time people have failed to real-ise how much the decline is.” He said he was concerned that “some priests are reluctant to offer priesthood to people as a valuable way of life. It will take a long time to increase this confidence.”
David Quinn, a commentator on Irish religious affairs, told The Times: “The real problem is that the demographic has finally caught up and priests are retiring and dying at a rate of knots.
“I’d say that a majority of priests in Ireland would probably favour dropping the celibacy rule, while the bishops would be more evenly split on the issue. But vocations in Ireland were exceptionally high between 1920 and 1960, higher than in the 19th century, just as now they are so low as to be an aberration. Ireland is now the vocations blackspot of the world.
“It’s not a crisis, it’s a catastrophe and it’s happened in a generation. There used to be three priests for every parish but it’s becoming common for two priests to share three parishes. In the near future there will be just one priest for every five parishes.” Mr Quinn said that the Church had to do more to promote vocations, both in schools and at the altar.
One possible solution to the crisis was illustrated this week when a former Catholic priest became Dean of the Protestant Church of Ireland’s Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin.
The Very Rev Dermot Dunne made a point of kissing his wife, Celia, while standing on the steps of the cathedral as he took up his new office.
He is the first Dean of Christ Church since the 16th-century Reformation to have received his theological education in a Catholic seminary, St Patrick’s Maynooth.
His most illustrious predecessor in the role is the satirist and author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift.
“It came to a point where I felt I needed to be honest,” he said. “I could see the Church was going one way and I another. My thinking was different on areas of human sexuality, on marriage, the place of women in the Church and the question of vocation of women and the admission of women to the ordained ministry.”
Mr Dunne said he had discussed his doubts while still a Catholic priest with Dr John Magee, then his bishop.
“The difference of opinion we had was over whether there is an intrinsic connection between the vocation to celibacy and the vocation to the ordained ministry. The official view is that there is, I would hold that there isn’t. So that is why I moved outside.”
It is all so different from 1947, when the Irish Government sent a note to Pope Pius XII inviting him to relocate to Ireland in the event of a communist takeover of Italy.
The Pope replied to the Irish ambassador to the Vatican: “Ah Ireland, where else could I go but Ireland!”
All the hours God sends
— Priests in Ireland work six days a week. They are encouraged to take one day off. In quieter parishes, some priests also get Sunday afternoons to themselves
— They receive the statutory 21 days’ holiday every year, although they are expected to work on Bank Holidays
— Priests are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and will respond immediately to midnight phone calls summoning them to the bedsides of seriously ill patients
— Would-be priests who enter seminary spend seven years training. The retention rate of those who enter compared with those who get ordained is about 60 per cent
— Priests are self-employed and receive a stipend of €1,000 (£750) a month. This grows dependent on years of service and can also increase if priests take on extra jobs outside their parish responsibilities.
— Retirement age for priests is 75 but most continue if they are in good health. Older priests give up their parish administrative duties but continue to celebrate Mass and the sacraments
— On April 13 a national year of vocation begins in Ireland that will try to boost the numbers of young men entering seminaries