The Irish Church refuses to face statistics on priesthood
Twenty young men entered Maynooth College this September to study for the
diocesan priesthood. That’s up on last year (from 12) but no one is
pretending that the increase matters all that much. With an attrition rate
of 40-plus percent we can expect that less than 12 from that number will eventually
be ordained in 2020 for the 26 dioceses of Ireland.
No one (or almost no one) is denying the present situation and the looming
crisis. I wrote a book about it earlier in the year (Who will break the
bread for us?) so I’ve crunched the figures and studied it in some depth.
The bottom line is that within 20 years a tiny cadre of aged priests
will be struggling to say Masses in a tiny complement of churches. When they
pass on there will effectively be no priests left in Ireland.
A few statistics. There are seven priests in Killala diocese under 55 years of
age. In Tuam diocese, by 2020, there will be just 30 priests for 55
parishes. And this year (2013) just one student has come forward to study
for the priesthood for Dublin diocese, which at present has over over million
Catholics. In 1990 there were 525 studying in Ireland for the diocesan
priesthood – now the figure is around 70.
Disturbingly, part of the problem is that the Irish Church is refusing to
recognise the mathematical imperative of the available statistics.
Two reactions are evident. One, a vague hope that maybe, please God, things
will change and you’d never know what might happen. God is good. This is a
strategy (if it could call it that) that leads towards accepting almost
anyone for priesthood – as long as they are able to stand up and say Mass.
Experience should tell us that this is a dangerous approach, and can lead to
more problems that mere numbers can solve. Pope Francis, one of many, warns
us against it. In Buenos Aires he only accepted about 40 per cent of those who
applied to enter the seminary in his diocese.
The second reaction is to argue that we’re not trying hard enough to attract
vocations and we need to get back to the tried and tested ways of
encouraging vocations: there’s no crisis because God is still calling
people; we’re not praying enough; we’re not putting enough resources into
the effort, say employing full-time vocations directors; we’re too
pessimistic in our approach.
Gerard Dunne, who’s a vocations director for the Dominican Order, encourages
the latter approach and has recently written a letter to the Irish bishops
ticking them off for their presumed failures in this area. When some
bishops, he writes, speak about vocations their words can have a very
negative impact and create uncertainty in the minds of potential candidates.
Dunne hits another predictable button. So often now priests don’t seem to
radiate joy ‘because of their calling to follow the Lord’. Where there is a
distinct lack of joy in the living out of priesthood, he suggests, it puts
possible candidates off. As does, he suggests, organisations and
associations of Catholic priests and religious who appear to portray
negative images of vocation to priesthood and religious life.
However, the more difficult truth is that dusting off the old strategies for
encouraging vocations or pushing them though a veneer of modern technology
are not solutions to the crisis because the crisis – and anyone who can add
can see there is a crisis – is more fundamental than people like Gerard
The clear, unvarnished truth is that very few young men are now prepared to
become priests and very few parents are prepared to support them if they
want to go that road. The lives priests lead, including what is perceived as
the unnatural and unhealthy isolation of diocesan priests, demand a level of
psychological and emotional maturity that few people actually achieve.
Pretending otherwise is to fly in the face of the prevailing evidence and
convinces only the naive and the pious.
We need to be real about priesthood. And we need to place that reality full
square before prospective candidates for priesthood. To do otherwise would
be manipulative and, worse still, unjust. It’s unacceptable that we should
somehow sell the priesthood to reluctant candidates by pretending that it’s
something other than it is. It’s irresponsible to draw people into
priesthood or the religious life through bombarding them with perceptions
that are at variance with the truth.
The reality is that priesthood is a difficult and demanding life that needs
a significant level of competence and emotional maturity and pretending
otherwise is counter-productive, dangerous and naive. And all the smiles or
positive vibes emanating from ‘happy’ priests won’t change that reality.
Pretending that it would is flying in the face of experience.
No matter how many full-time vocations directors we have, no matter how we
wrap it up in modern technology, no matter how we present ourselves as
happy-clappy priests, no matter how we pray for vocations, all the available
evidence suggests that we need to look more fundamentally at priesthood, at
a new and re-imaging of priesthood for a very different world rather than
simply pressing all the old buttons. Naive enthusiasm about absolute
certainties and unreal expectations does not pay its dues either to the
world we live in or the demands of a priest’s life. Simple solutions to
complex problems never really deliver. Pretending that this issue is simple
and straight-forward is no service to priesthood or to Church. ‘Confusion’
Brian Friel once wrote, ‘need not be an ignoble condition’.
So what can be done? In my book, Who will break the bread for us? I examine
what purchase there might be in some of the solutions offered: married
deacons, importing priests from Africa, extending the retirement age for
priests, praying for vocations, substituting Communion Services for Masses.
And I’ve suggested that we need to take a more fundamental look at
priesthood if we want to sustain the scaffolding of faith-communities built
up over the centuries and which, without priests, will crumble very quickly.
We have a small window of opportunity – two decades, at most – to find some
‘real’ solutions. We need to do something more fundamental than setting up
another web-site. This is one problem modern technology or pressing old
buttons won’t solve.
The difficulty we have about vocations is that those who can make the hard
decisions don’t want to admit the extent of the problem. That will soon