19Jul Killala diocese may have only eight priests by 2032

Ordinations to the priesthood are now greeted as ‘news’. Two ordinations this year in Tuam generated quite a bit of publicity in the general media.

They were, I think, the only ordinations in the west this year. In days gone past, ordinations just happened in every diocese in June. We took them for granted. If memory serves me right my own ordination barely merited a mention in the Western People. Only the exceptional makes news.

With fewer priests and with an ever-increasing age-profile, the ratio of priests to parish, or progressively parishes to priest, is focussing our attention. In most dioceses now there are committees looking at the idea of clustering parishes as the number of priests ciontinues to decline. There comes a point when it’s easier to divide parishes into priests than priests into parishes.

There’s an old cartoon in an American magazine where a very elderly priest, holding on to the lectern for support, informs his congregation that as wellas being pastor (parish priest) of St Michael’s and St Catherine’s and St Patrick’s, the bishop has just informed him that he will now also be ‘Pastorof St Gerard’s, St Matthew’s, St Teresa’s and St Jude’s’. In Ireland we’re coming to that point.

The figures tell the story. In 1973, the year I was ordained, there were 62 priests in Killala diocese, an all time high. Now there are 42, with 32 working in parishes 3 of whom are on loan.

So what will the figures be into the future? It’s difficult to estimate this because we simply don’t know how many will be ordained or how many may be too ill to work. But it’s reasonable to presume – and most analysts accept this – that the number of ordinations will not compensate for the numbers retiring.

So even though projections will be inaccurate to some degree the general trend is quite clear. When the numbers are crunched, the bottom line is this: in twenty years time, that’s by 2032, there will be 12 priests in Killala diocese under 75 years of age. This doesn’t take into consideration three other factors: priests who may retire at 70 (as is the option); priests who may become ill and unable to work; priests who join other dioceses; or priests who leave. If you factor in the earlier optional retirement age, the figure is eight.

It’s an interesting exercise to work out where the eight priests would be working. The probability is that most of them will be in their 60s, with a few over 70. Probably two in Ballina; two in Erris; one in Tyrawley North (Killala, Lacken, Ballycastle, Kilfian and Conneal) ; one in Tyrawley South (Crossmolina, Backs, Lahardane, Moygownagh, Ardagh); and two in Tireragh.

There’s nothing new, of course, about marrying the number of parishes to the number of priests. It has been an ongoing exercise over the centuries. In Penal times when the number of priests declined, parishes were amalgamated to ensure some level of service to the people. Kilcommon once encompassed Kiltane, Ballycroy and Belmullet. (Dean John Patrick Lyons once criticised Bishop John MacHale for allowing Kilcommon to become a ‘curate-breaking’ parish!). Kilbride and Doonfeeny were united as Ballycastle; Rathreagh was incorporated into Kilfian, and so on. Then as the number of priests increased more parishes were established, for example, Kiltane in 1873 and amalgamated parishes divided, for example, Dromore West and Templeboy.

The priest-people ratio was forever changing. In 1800, for example, the ratio of priests to people in Killala diocese was 1:2970; in 1840, it was 1:3680. In 2012, the figure is 1,218. This doesn’t take into consideration the difficulty in the past of travel – on horseback mainly – or the limits of communication. There were, for example, no roads into Erris in 1800. (You can see what Dean Lyons meant by the ‘curate-breaking’ dimensions of Kilcommon parish – curates on horseback doing sick-calls in all kinds of weather.)

So clustering of parishes is not something new, just part of ongoing reorganisation of parishes and people. However, we are coming to a point where clustering won’t work, at least in the long term if the number of priests continue to decline. Though clustering of parishes may be the answer for the next decade or so, clearly there comes a point in an ever-decreasing circle when everything collapses.

Bishop Thomas McDonnell, who wrote a history of Killala diocese to the end of the Penal laws, used to comment very proudly that all through the most difficult days of Penal times, Killala managed to retain a priest in every parish. That prospect is quickly disappearing. Even from this vantage point, we can see that joining parishes in some loose union, under the care of a priest, is no more than a short-term solution. (It may have too the unintended result of straining the energy and the health of the diminishing cadre of priests but that’s another story.)

So what are the alternatives? If there has been a scaffolding of Christian life and worship for centuries, then every effort has to be made to keep that in place – in some shape or form. Clearly we are coming to the end of something and new shapes and forms will have to emerge.

One possible approach, as a first step – and there are others, I know – would be to look at our present parishes and call into priesthood men, married or unmarried, who have indicated by the lives they lead that they are committed to the Christian way of life in the Catholic tradition. Already men deacons, married and unmarried, are being ordained, with minimal training and formation. If it works with deacons, who cannot say Mass or hear Confessions and whose role will therefore be marginal, why can’t it happen with priests. It can, of course, and it will, because the present wisdom is that other options are too distressing to contemplate.

In 2032, when eight Killala priests (in their Sixties and Seventies) are struggling to cover 22 parishes, will people be still wringing their hands in exasperation or praying for more vocations? Or will everyone be a bit more real by then?

• Previously published in the Western People on 17 July 2012.

7 Responses

  1. Andy

    Maybe we should let go of the parish system. If the system isn’t fit for purpose, dump it. I think it would be better to have monasteries where people would go to, rather than expecting the priest to come to them. Also, priests could live in community together instead of being isolated. There are plenty of monasteries around Ireland with thriving community life and lots of people coming and going for Mass, confessions, novenas, for a listening ear etc… This would, I think, better suit the needs of people than trying to maintain historic parishes and dioceses just for the sake of tradition. I also think priests and bishops should look at what they are doing and coordinate tasks with other people and concentrate on what they are primarily about.

  2. Larry Kelly

    In 20 years time, will there be people searching for participation in parishes ? Looking around at the age profile of congregations at present, and if the present model of priestly ministry continues, I think that maybe there will not be a shortage of priests by then, but a surplus. The Spirit is calling us to look at a new model of priestly ministry, born from already existing faith communities, where priests would minister in the community from within which they have been called, alongside many other ministers, sharing in a rich variety of ministries to that community. We need to place the focus on the community of believers, and the Spirit present in each person,and leave behind the tired and wilting model of priestly ministry which is such a dead weight on the shoulders of many christian communities and, dare I say it, on priests themselves. Imagine the renewed vitality such change would give to the ministry of priesthood, and to the people of God.

  3. Lucy O'Briend

    The reality that the Irish church will have so few priests in 2032 is no news – but the starkness of Brendan Hoban’s article must, one would hope, focus minds on the need to start putting a plan in place to deal with this reality.
    In any such planning I wish to emphasis how unsatisfactory I believe, the present solution of ‘clustering’ is for everybody, especially the clergy.
    In our parish, we lost our resident priest two years ago so we now have our weekend Mass supplied by the neighbouring P.P. A 72 year old man, who has a 7p.m Saturday evening and a 10 a.m. Sunday morning Mass in his own parish and then an 11.30 with us. And if there are baptisms he does those after he finishes our Mass.
    So by 1 O ‘Clock on Sunday I can honestly say this man is more than a little exhausted!
    On a recent occasion he joined our family for lunch, during which he indicated that it usually takes him until midweek to get over the weekend duties, or as he said ‘ before he is back to himself again’. So while clustering, in theory, may be part of a quick fix solution, its limitations are all too obvious.
    True, if all the clergy were in their 40s or 50s it might hold out some hope – but men in their late 60’s, and 70’s !
    Asking, even allowing priests, who have given a lifetime of service, to set into the autumn of their lives, rushing and racing from one church to another to say ‘another mass’ is wrong. Not just wrong. It’s bizarre, unfair, unrealistic and exploitative.
    Our poor man readily admits it’s too much for him, but then concludes ‘if I don’t do it who will? And you’d hate to leave the people without Mass’.
    All very admirable – but at 72 years of age?
    My own father is 71. Would I want him to carry this burden of work now?
    The answer is very simple. No.
    Should we want it from our priests? I believe the answer remains the same.
    And the family of every priest, be that the bishop or his fellow clergy- owe it to these elderly men- to ensure no less care for them.
    And before the problem is blamed on parish communities, let me say too that our parish council, have continually sought to put in place ways of addressing our ‘priestlessness’ and while authorities seem happy to let us do this midweek, we have not been given much scope in finding a realistic longterm solution, which addresses the truth that we will not have a resident priest again in our community.
    Like all Irish problems, one wonders if it will take a tragedy, even a death, before we actually do anything about this.
    Might it be the next chapter, which reveals the abusive nature of an institution, which as we have learned so painfully of late, tends to overlook the needs of the voiceless for the perceived well-being of the institution?
    Have we really learned anything ?
    Our actions will best judge that.

  4. Michael O'Neill

    Perhaps a look at the small French diocese of Frejus-Toulon, with around 75 seminarians, might be instructive.

  5. seán eile

    I presume the situation is much the same in other dioceses. I find it remarkable there is no action being taken. How large does the Spirit have to write on the wall? SHouldnt we at least risk throwing the net out the other side!

  6. Joe O'Leary

    The 75 seminarians in Toulon seem to belong largely to the new movements such as the Divine Mercy missionaries. A small diocese would not need 75 seminarians.

    http://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2009/08/of-note-from-frejus-toulon.html

    http://misericordedivine.fr/Le-seminaire-de-Toulon.html

  7. Martin Neary

    I agree with Fr Brendan’s suggestion re the calling into priesthood of suitable laymen (and possibly women) who would work under the supervision of the local PP or Bishop. Their main role would be performing Baptisms, Anointings and Masses. Confessions are almost obsolete and should be replaced by the confession rite said at the beginning of each Mass with a group service of Reconciliation at special times in the Church year, say at Easter and Xmas.

    The present administration of the sacraments solely through a dedicated specially ordained clergy is now obsolete and, regardless of numbers, suitable lay people should now be asked to volunteer for these ministries.

    Martin Neary


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