Shortage of priests is having drastic consequences
In this corner for some time now I’ve been banging on about the problems of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Not least about the problem of the steep decline in the number of priests and its implications in the foreseeable future. Not everyone agrees, which is okay too. Some believe that the tide will turn and we will find ourselves back in the promised land, a place flowing with milk, honey and vocations.
The facts, I’m afraid, are against it. This year just 12 students entered Maynooth to study for the priesthood. None of them is from a western diocese. That must be something of a record. In my first year in Maynooth I was one of 20 students from the western dioceses and there were 84 altogether in my class. In all now there are 64 students in Maynooth studying for the priesthood. In my time the total number of students was around 400.
It’s not a happy picture. And of course the same applies across the developed world: Britain, Germany, Italy, USA. France is even worse, of course, a template of the future. The Church has virtually disappeared in vast areas of rural France as aged priests struggle to cope with a multiplicity of parishes. The future of the Catholic Church in Ireland looks like France, I’m afraid.
Like Great Britain too. A sign of things to come is the decision of the Archdiocese of Liverpool to train lay people to conduct funeral services. Twenty-two lay ‘funeral ministers’, both men and women, have been commissioned officially to lead funeral services where there’s no priest available to say Mass.
The move comes into effect this autumn and is due, predictably enough, to a combination of fewer priests and more funerals. A special leaflet issued by the Liverpool archdiocese explains that a lay minister can lead a prayer vigil before a funeral, as well as a funeral service including the prayers of committal and the prayers at the graveside. In effect everything the priest does except say Mass.
So there it is. All happening in the traditional heartland of English Catholicism. Burying the dead without a Mass or a priest. In three years time, the number of priests in Liverpool diocese will have declined from 170 to 100, according to last week’s Tablet newspaper. Crunch the statistics relating to priest numbers, co-relate them with numbers dying and any diocese in Ireland will surface the same truth. The difference is that we don’t want to talk about it, thank you very much.
According to a report in the Irish Catholic the Irish bishops are drawing up new plans for lay-people to conduct Sunday Communion services. The suggestion is that the bishops will be discussing this at their autumn meeting. The Catholic Press Office has denied the report but this is a subject that will demand the attention of the Church as more-and-more communities are set to be left without a priest for the first time.
It doesn’t really matter, in a way, if the Irish Catholic newspaper has got it wrong. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) Because if the Irish bishops are not discussing these issues then they should be. It isn’t as if (a) there’s no problem – there is; or (b) we can’t see it – we can; or (c) we don’t know what to do – there are some very obvious suggestions that need to be discussed.
The only suggestion being considered at present is the effort to ‘cluster’ parishes – a necessary strategy to manage the decline of priests while seeking to optimise their effectiveness – and the ordination of married deacons, such ‘solutions’ are short-term and ineffective. And of course everyone knows that ‘clustering’ is just kicking the can down the road.
So what’s going to happen? The trajectory will be something like this. As priests age and die out, lay ministers will hold week-day Communion Services in situations where priests are not available. It will start with Communion Services conducted by laymen and women in parishes where there used to be Mass and now there’s no priest to say it. Gradually this practice will extend to weekend Masses. People will either opt to travel to some more populated centre for Mass or stay in their home parish for a Communion Service. In all probability parishes will not be amalgamated or churches closed – as that would cause a lot of bother – but effectively parishes will become paper entities and churches will become dilapidated and eventually close. And like in Liverpool, a series of specific ministries (like Funeral Ministers) will be introduced to fill in for a declining and aged remnant of priests.
So what are the alternatives. In a few Irish dioceses, deacons are being ordained. They can do everything a priest can do except say Mass, hear Confessions or anoint the sick. The idea is that they will help priests by baptising, receiving funerals, preaching, etc.
I mention them for two reasons: one, their training is being fast-tracked, a number of part-time courses over a few years; and, two, its open to married men. Yet it’s not a lay ministry, like giving out Communion or reading at Mass. It’s an ordained ministry. So why can’t the same apply to ordaining men who have proven, by the lives they lead, their faith and their commitment. Surely we can find in every parish in Ireland at least one such worthy candidate.
Yes, I know there are other options too and no doubt the Church in its wisdom will come to consider them in time. But at the moment we’re not allowed to discuss them.
Don’t mention the war. Don’t mention it. I won’t tell a soul.