Irish dioceses should imitate the courage of Pope Benedict
The announcement of the retirement of Pope Benedict was a unique moment in
the modern Church; he is the first Pope to retire in hundreds of years.
His stated reasons for retiring, being no longer able to minister
effectively due to age and frailty, highlight a problem for the church. In
most of the developed world the problem of an aging clergy and the lack of
replacements when they die, or grow too frail to effectively minister, is
now a critical one.
My perspective is of one who has spent a lot of time on the edge, literally,
of my diocese, of Ireland, and of Europe. I have spent 21 of my 34 years in
ministry looking in from, first, Galway Bay and now over Clew Bay. When you
look in from the edge for long enough you can get a different view, a
different understanding, in contrast to those who are always looking out
from the centre. There have been many changes in those years. The latest
involving “clustering” and “consolidation” of parishes are being made to
cope with the shortage of priests but as the shortage becomes more severe
these efforts become more and more futile.
But there is the danger we are merely dealing with symptoms instead of
identifying and addressing the underlying difficulty.
In Ireland we have been somewhat shielded from the shortage of priests by
the high numbers we had to begin with. Gradual reductions were not all that
noticeable to parishioners. Parishes that had two or more priests gradually
reduced services so that the change was not so dramatic.
But from here on the impact of the priest shortage will be dramatic; there
will be parishes in our diocese without a resident priest.
Inevitably some churches will no longer have a Sunday Mass. No longer can
there be a presumption that a priest will be available on demand for
baptisms, funerals, weddings or other occasions. Such events will have to be
fitted into the schedule of a number of parishes.
In church we often minimalize a problem instead of facing it squarely and
dealing with the problem and its consequences. Pope Benedict by retiring may
have given us the freedom to squarely face this problem of providing
ministry with an aging and depleting clergy.
By 2020, a mere seven years hence, there will be a maximum of 50 priests to
serve 55 parishes in Tuam Diocese (Inisboffin and Clare Island having
already lost their priest).
With proper planning at diocesan level, and sensitive explanation of the
rationale of where Masses will, and will not, be celebrated, the majority of
people in the diocese who attend Mass could still be catered for with this
Obviously plans will also have to be made for the provision of pastoral care
to people and for the administration of each parish. These are areas where
the laity can and must take their rightful role. The greater role that the
laity will adopt in these areas is probably the area of most hope for the
future of the church.
The ten years following 2020 will see even greater challenges. Without
dramatic changes in how ministry is provided, our diocese, from a
sacramental viewpoint, will be largely ineffective. Put simply, going on the
current rate of deaths, retirements and ordinations of priests, by 2030
there will be an inadequate number of priests available, possibly just 30,
to allow parishioners in Tuam diocese to readily avail of the sacraments of
Eucharist, Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick.
I can only hope that everyone in church will acknowledge the reality of the
situation and that it will exercise the minds of church leaders. I hope and
pray for openness to new ways and approaches to priestly ministry so that
parishes can truly be Eucharistic communities.
To concentrate solely on the organisation of parishes into clusters and
consolidated pastoral areas, without attempting to discuss the underlying
reasons for the shortage of priests is, at its very best, to attempt an
extremely short-term solution. To borrow a phrase it is merely ‘kicking the
can down the road’, in this case an ever-narrowing, ever-shortening,
cul-de-sac. At worst, I fear that in years to come clustering may be seen as
yet another clerical cover up, the cover up of our refusal to face the
reasons of why in the developed world insufficient numbers are coming
forward to serve as priests.
If short term planning is all that is done, then in ten years we will be
faced with the parish ‘clusters’ becoming larger and more demanding and
priests fewer, older, frailer, and less able to minister.
We need honesty in facing and debating the reasons for the shortage of
priests and how we can overcome it. We need the courage to at least discuss
all options and suggest possible remedies.
Saying we cannot influence matters, that they are beyond us, is nothing
short of an abandonment of our church and in effect will cut people off from
sacraments and church. Our pastoral vision has to be nothing less than that
each parish community will be enabled to celebrate Eucharist in and with
their local community.
Pope Benedict’s courage in retiring when he felt he could no longer provide
effective ministry should encourage us to discuss and tackle the problem of
how we provide effective ministry at all levels, not just the Papacy, in
On 28 February, at 7.00 p.m. Irish time, the See of Peter will become
vacant; Rome will be without a Bishop. However, it will not be left vacant
for long. The Cardinals, without too much delay, will replace the Bishop of
Rome, the Pope. The real problem for sacramental ministry in the church
arises when a priest retires or dies, will there be anyone to replace him?
Parishes could be left vacant for a very long time.
Pope Benedict made a truly historic decision and did something that most
people thought could never happen, something that could not really even be
spoken of to this point. Perhaps we could use it to encourage, even
embolden, us to look again at the problems we are faced with as a church and
together with our bishops attempt to generate options in trying to resolve
those problems. Maybe we’ll come up with solutions we thought could never
happen, solutions that could not really even be spoken of to this point.