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Why are fewer Catholics taking road to the abbey?

As the number of vocations to the priesthood in Ireland falls dramatically, Malachi O'Doherty asks if this means that the Catholic Church will have to radically change its attitude to women

The single element in the secularisation of Ireland that guarantees a radical change in our religious culture is the collapse in vocations. In Catholic understanding, a vocation to the priesthood or religious life is a calling from God. Well, God has fallen strangely silent.

The churches are not emptying nearly as fast as the pulpits are. Many thousands of people in this country still want the services and support that come with at least occasional church attendance and membership of a congregation. But the church, as they have understood it, is about to disappear.

Ten times more priests are leaving the church or dying as are hearing the call and responding to it. So most of the ones we are left with are older men, many of them tired and overworked.

The 159 priests of the diocese of Down and Connor is being replenished by only one or two new vocations a year. In 1950 the diocese had one priest for every 700 Catholics. Now each priest has double that number to look after.

This is a crisis for the church but also an indicator of a fundamental change in the character of Catholic Ireland.

Once we had thousands of priests. The optimist says that Ireland was inordinately devout then and that the figures were inflated beyond what was natural; in that case a sort of normality is restoring itself now.

In other countries priests have several parishes to serve and live with the reality of half-hearted commitment among the faithful.

Ireland is simply turning into a normal western country from having been virtually obsessed with religion. It was a phase we were going through and it is over.

In the near future, many parishes will have no priest at all. A priest from outside will have the responsibility of dropping by to consecrate the eucharist, but he will not be there on Sunday to say mass. A lay eucharistic minister will distribute communion instead and lead the prayers.

That will effect two likely changes in the character of Catholic worship.

Since the line of communication from the institutional church to the people will have been broken, the power to impose dogmatic rigour will weaken. And, since most eucharistic ministers are women, we may shift in a decade from a male led church to something that looks, feels and sounds matriarchal.

Already there are more women than men in Catholic colleges studying theology, preparing for the responsibility they will inherit.

The other main churches say that they are not suffering the same rapid decline. The lonely celibate life of a Catholic priest is probably harder than that of a married pastor in the Church of Ireland and Presbyterian Church.

An indication of that is that some Catholic priests are defecting to the Church of ireland. One is Mark Hayden, in his new parish in Gorey in Co Wexford.

The Church of Ireland Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, was a Roman Catholic and several women who have felt called to the priesthood have gone into the Church of Ireland. Olive Donahoe in Portalise is one.

An ex-priest in the North West was recently invited by a Church of Ireland bishop, over a game of golf, to cross over and take a parish. But the secular trend in Ireland is following the pattern of change in other European countries a generation before us, according to University of Aberdeen sociologist Steve Bruce: "The trajectory is the same."

There are certainly signs of growth in some of the evangelical churches but this may be masked by surges of enthusiasm which attract people from one church to another.

When Pastor George McKim started to hold prayer services in hotels in Belfast and Templepatrick in June, he drew several hundred people, but it is likely that few were new converts to religious faith. The other churches which those people had come from will have registered corresponding declines.

There was a similar surge of enthusiasm for healing services at the north Belfast Elim church last year.

This year, the Catholic seminary at Maynooth, reported an increased number of men coming forward for training.

One recent high profile recruit to training for the priesthood was former Northern Ireland international soccer player, Philip Mulryne, who has begun his studies.

To attract increased numbers the President of Maynooth, Mgr Hugh Connolly had reached out to older men and announced that he was changing the training regime to teach men to pray and lead prayer.

In the past, the main flow of entrants would have been from the schools.

Boys coming out of Catholic schools would have had daily exposure to praying in front of others and been at ease with it.

Mgr Connolly was recognising that for the priesthood to survive at all a new kind of recruit had to be won over and catered for with an education that started with the basics. The church hopes that older men, who have a clearer sense of what they want from life, will be less likely to drop out or leave the priesthood after a few years, but there is a growing sense that the priesthood is no longer a life long commitment.

The increase that is being celebrated amounts to 36 men in the whole of Ireland.

There are currently 77 men in training.

They are coming into a church vastly unlike the one they were baptised in and they will be its lonely and over worked inheritors.

And one other bad augur. Those who are close to the new generations of priests say they are much more conservative than the older men of the generation dying out. They might not fit so well into the new Ireland.

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