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.