Ireland’s priests will have almost disappeared in 20 years. What then?
When Irish priests have disappeared, Who Will Break The Bread For Us?
Denial is a fact of life. When those we love are seriously ill, we want to
deny the painful prospects ahead of us. When institutions we’ve given our
lives to are in crisis we often pretend otherwise. Human kind, the poet T.S.
Eliot famously wrote, cannot bear much reality. When we try to pretend that
everything is just as it used to be, that nothing has gone wrong, we do what
the orchestra on the Titanic did, we keep playing, we pretend that
everything is normal. That’s what denial is.
The Catholic Church in Ireland is in denial about vocations to the
priesthood. We’re pretending that there’s no crisis. Or that the crisis is
not as bad as it seems. Or that things could be worse than they are. Or that
we can’t really know what God has in store for us. Or whatever.
Let’s look at some numbers.
• In Killala diocese, for 22 parishes, there are now 7 priests under 55
years of age. Spool on for two decades and there will be 7 (or thereabouts)
• In Tuam diocese in 2020 (that’s just 7 years time) there will be 50
priests for 55 parishes and ten years on from that, in 2030, there will be
just 30 Tuam priests, most of them elderly.
• In 1984 there were 171 ordinations or religious professions in Ireland; in
2006 there were 22.
• In 1990 there were 525 students studying for the diocesan priesthood in
Ireland; in 2013 there are 70.
• In 1966, when I went to Maynooth, there were 84 in my class; this year 12
went to Maynooth.
• In 1966, of the 84 who went to Maynooth, 20 were from the western
dioceses; of the 12 in first year in Maynooth none is from the west.
So we don’t need to have 20/20 vision to see this particular train coming
down the track. All we need to do is to be able to count. And to accept what
the very dogs in the street already know is happening – Ireland’s priests
will have virtually disappeared in 20 years.
My new book, Who Will Break The Bread For Us? Disappearing Priests, names
this reality. It examines in detail the solutions on offer and proposes that
we have a narrow window of opportunity to take the radical decisions that
need to be taken if Ireland is not to become a Eucharistic desert, if our
parishes are not to become priest-less and Mass-less communities. Because
without priests we have no Mass and without Mass we have no Church.
For the first time in many, many centuries in Ireland we are facing the
collapse of a scaffolding of worship that was sustained even during Penal
and famine times. And it’s as if, as a Church, we are walking blind-folded
towards a precipice because unlike other fundamental questions we need to
ask ourselves as a Church, Who will break the bread for us? can’t be
obscured in a fog of waffle and distraction. For the simple reason that the
issue of priest-vocations is now embarrassingly quantifiable.
Solutions offered to the vocations’ crisis include : clustering of parishes
(this is at best a short-term management strategy); ordaining married
deacons (but they can’t say Mass); importing priests from Africa (but there
will be huge language and cultural problems); extending the retirement age
for priests (it’s already at 70 and 75 and is both unfair and exploitative);
replacing Mass with Communion services (which will divide and fracture
faith-communities); praying for vocations (is God in not answering our
prayers suggesting to us that the solution may be in our own hands?).
So what can we do?
We could ordain as priests married deacons who already work in parishes –
there are few enough in Ireland at present but there are 16,921 in the USA.
We could ordain married men of proven faith in our parishes – their
education and formation could be fast-tracked, as is the case with deacons.
We could invite priests who left to get married to return, even in a
part-time capacity – there are thousands of them in Ireland, including seven in
one Mayo parish. We could institute a married clergy, alongside a celibate
clergy – already married priests (who have come over from the Church of
England) are working in parishes all over Great Britain.
Recently Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin suggested that there were
vocations out there if we could access them: ‘For the moment, what we have
to do is find worthy candidates who are able to live as celibate priests as
is the tradition in the Latin rite. I believe that there are candidates
there but we are not always necessarily reaching them’.
The key phrase here is ‘for the moment.’ Wriggle-room is what it’s called.
And I suspect, I have to say, that Archbishop Martin knows that the game is
up for the Irish Church if all we can muster is yet another search for
putative celibate priests in the tradition in the Latin rite. That
particular t-shirt is well-faded. Been there and done that.
The reality is that in 20 years there will be few priests in Ireland and
those that are still standing will be mainly in their 70s. So there is an
inevitable logic with asking the question, Who will break the bread for us?,
that points up the futility of short-term, sticking-plaster solutions and I
examine it in this book.
In Who Will Break The Bread For Us? I say my piece about the crisis in
vocations to the priesthood in this book. Not everyone will agree with my
prognosis or indeed with my assessment of ‘the darkness at the heart of
priesthood’ or my direct suggestions about decisions that need to be made.
But if, as I believe, we are sleep-walking towards a precipice, we need to
consider where we’re going and how long we have to avoid the disaster for
our Church that looms ahead of us. We need at least to start a real
conversation about where we are and what we can do. It’s my hope that this
book will help to kick-start that conversation.
Or at least call a halt to whatever equivalent of that orchestra on the
Titanic playing on regardless that is offered to distract us from what’s
happening in the Irish Catholic Church. No matter how understandable denial
may be, we can’t afford it anymore.
• Who Will Break The Bread For Us? Disappearing Priests may be purchased on this website. (See on right.)