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Shortage of priests leaves Catholic Church in a real predicament

With an ageing workforce and the younger generation not interested in a cleric's life, this is a crisis across Ireland writes Malachi O'Doherty

Published 05/01/2017

Serious decline in vocations is major issue for Catholicism
Serious decline in vocations is major issue for Catholicism

There is a shortage of priests everywhere, certainly all over Ireland. In some countries the priest is peripatetic. He moves from parish to parish, stopping for a day to consecrate enough wafers of the Eucharist bread to supply the masses for weeks ahead. He then leaves it to the lay servers or Eucharistic ministers to distribute them.

The tradition of there always being a priest available to say Mass in any church has already died out. This is not like the Ireland I knew as a child where, on a Saturday morning, four priests might be hearing confessions and four rows of pews at each confession box would be filled with penitents waiting their turn.

The bottom has fallen out of the market.

Which would not be a problem if the staffing of the Church declined at the same rate as the demand for the sacraments, but it hasn't. It has proceeded at a faster rate.

Certainly, fewer Catholics go to Mass every week than did 20 years ago. Indeed, fewer still go to confession. Almost none want to be priests, but about half of them still want to go to Mass about once a month.

That means that the ratio of priests to members of a congregation has fallen.

Even in a rapidly secularising Ireland there is demand for more Masses than there are priests to celebrate them.

And many parishes now are run by a single, lonely priest performing all the duties attached to the job unaided.

In Newry, one part of the solution is simply to drop some of the Masses from the routine.

In other areas parishes co-operate to relieve the burden. Congregations are invited to cross to another parish to give their local priest a rest.

So, in Strabane, for instance, the regulars at the Wednesday morning Mass go across to the Melmount Road church to give their priest, Fr Doherty a break, and on Tuesdays the Melmount Road parish priest, Fr Boland, gets a break and his congregation goes to Strabane.

The Catholic Church, which once was so overstaffed in Ireland that it could export priests to the African mission fields in huge numbers, is now running low on recruits.

And those priests that it can hold on to are the older ones, tired, ageing men working flat out to provide Masses and other sacraments for the dwindling faithful.

This is a crisis, for those men will die out and not be replaced. The Catholic Church in Ireland, in even a decade from now, will be sparsely served.

This is a country that was the most Catholic in Europe, one in which most people went to Mass every week, and many families thought they were blessed if one of the children had a vocation to the priesthood or one of the religious orders.

Now look around at the big schools which were set up by the Christian brothers, the Jesuits, the Dominicans, the Order of the Cross and Passion. All of their teachers are now lay people. The familiar sight of a Sister or Brother in a habit or soutane, with rosary beads dangling from a belt and perhaps a cane in hand, patrolling the corridor and expecting reverence from hushed children, is gone.

Now a child who announced that he wanted to be a priest would be discouraged. One who wanted to be a Christian Brother would be thought mad.

Indeed, the Order of the Cross and Passion now refuses to accept new members unless they have been through a psychological assessment. This is not just because the desire to join an order is seen as eccentric in these times, but because it is now acknowledged that many of those who joined such orders in the past brought pain and grief to the children they abused.

The Church is now caught in a paradox.

The enthusiasm for religion is waning in the country, but it refuses to die out. Consequently, fewer people make big commitments.

Day to day Catholicism is easier now than it was. When I was young you could not go to communion unless you had fasted for three hours, so you did not have breakfast before Mass. In my mother's youth the rule was that you fasted from the night before.

The rule that you must not eat meat on a Friday is gone, and you can even go to Sunday Mass on a Saturday night, so that you can go out and enjoy yourself afterwards and don't have to face it in the morning with a hangover. Once Catholicism carried more pain and guilt with it.

I recall the lenten mission when the Redemptorists would take over the church for a week and expect us to turn out for Mass every evening and hear shame inducing lectures on the horror of Hell. Now no one mentions Hell.

People don't go to Mass in the huge numbers they did in the 1960s, but that was probably an aberration anyway.

Compared to other Churches, the turnout among Catholics is still healthy. A lot of that may be more to do with a sense of community than of deep devotion. And that more relaxed devotion does not inspire people to sacrifice the prospects of family life to serve God and His people.

The result is that the priesthood is declining faster than the congregations.

And beyond those congregations are the people who hardly go to church at all and yet expect their children to marry in the church, and would be heartbroken if they didn't.

And most baptised Catholics expect a Catholic funeral even if they have hardly been to a church for decades other than to see friends married or buried.

That produces another pressure on the Church, its services being required by those who in the normal run of things contribute nothing to the maintenance of Church buildings or to the welfare of the clergy.

This is unfair.

Yet there are practical solutions available to some of these problems.

Ireland has more ex-priests than priests, men who left to marry or for other reasons. Many of them are still Catholic believers. They are still considered by the Church to be empowered to perform the sacraments. Indeed, some do so in their own homes, breaking bread and providing the Eucharist for their children.

If these men were retired plumbers or teachers they could be given part-time work to relieve the shortage. It doesn't work like that in the Catholic Church.

The other neglected resource is women, who generally are more religious than men anyway.

The Catholic Church will not consider ordaining the women who want to be priests, and could solve its staffing problems very quickly if it did.

There are now more women than men studying theology in Ireland. Bound to its rigid ideas of a male celibate priesthood, the Catholic Church is choking itself to death.

And the people who feel the pain of that most are the solitary priests in big parish houses all over the country, beleaguered by the needs of nominal Catholics who give them little support and wouldn't do that job themselves at any price.

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