14Sep Camouflaging an inevitable reality.

This September 17 young men entered Maynooth to study for the priesthood, bringing the total number of clerical students in Ireland’s only seminary for diocesan priests to 60. The figure, up a few on last year, is hovering around the same mark for some years now. Given the percentage figures for those ordained in relation to those who enter the seminary, the death-rate of priests and the needs of parishes, it is clear that 17 or thereabouts doesn’t even begin to address what everyone now accepts is a vocations crisis.

A new reality has dawned. Parishes are now effectively being amalgamated, though we resist using the word. Priests are not being replaced. Masses are being curtailed.

Priests are disappearing in Ireland. In Tuam diocese this year three priests who had reached the retirement age of 75 have agreed to soldier on, helping to camouflage for the moment an inevitable reality.

Even Archbishop Charles Browne, the papal nuncio in Ireland, whose optimism can sometimes stretch to the point of fantasy, has recently conceded that we have a crisis. A man given to discerning green shoots in the barest of bare landscapes, before this his natural optimism persuaded him to deny a reality that was apparent to the dogs in the streets.

Recently, however, in an interview with the religious affairs correspondent of the Irish Times, Patsy McGarry, the nuncio has accepted that we have a vocations crisis. When the ‘wonderful men in their 70s and some in their 80s still working’ pass on, he said, when that ‘entire segment will disappear’, the crisis will have arrived.

But all is not lost, according to the nuncio. He told the Irish Times: The problem is ‘certainly being addressed. The question is how it is being addressed’. If Patsy McGarry has asked him to explain that phrase what would he have said?

Probably not that we need to pray harder for vocations because, keeping in mind Einstein’s aphorism that continually doing the same thing and expecting a difference result is a sign of mental derangement, we’ve been there and done that and God doesn’t seem to want to know.

Or would he have said that we have arrived at a point where, as Pope Francis seems to be saying, we need to look at the celibacy requirement? Not yet, it seems.

Even though Archbishop Browne loves ‘the openness to the world and the idea of opening the Church’ that Pope Francis encourages, the celibacy line in the sand is not open for discussion – so far, at least. So how, in Archbishop Brown’s words, is the vocations’ crisis ‘being addressed’?

The word on the ground is that the latest wheeze to solve the vocations crisis (or to push back the obvious solution for as long as possible) is to import priests from abroad.

Already here and there priests from overseas have served in Irish parishes, mainly Polish priests serving Polish communities, but also African and Indian priests. And now one diocese has decided to formally investigate establishing a structured link with an Indian diocese whereby a number of priests, say five to ten, will be transferred to an Irish diocese and be given a number of parishes.

It appears the initiative is regarded as a pilot scheme which, if successful, might kick the celibacy can down the road a few years more. It is, it seems, the last throw of the dice in an effort to avoid the inevitable.

Giving credibility to this strategy is the long and impressive missionary contribution of the Irish Church to Catholicism throughout the world. It seems fair and sensible to say that, if we brought the faith to them in past centuries, isn’t it time for them to reciprocate?

But it’s not quite as simple as that. For one thing missioning in Africa or Asia a hundred years ago is different from missioning in Ireland now. The context is completely different. And our theology of mission is very different.

Another consideration is that priests are not like footballers who can be transferred for a given fee from Real Madrid to Manchester United and hardly notice the change, as what they do and how and where they do is exactly the same. The size of the pitch and the width of the goal-posts are the same in Madrid as in Manchester.

Priesting is different. Language matters. Culture matters. Tradition matters. History matters. Understanding is about more than knowing the words. Appreciating the weave and waft of Irish society is essential to ministering to people’s needs at parish level. Even accent can be a bar to communication. Accent-wise, even a Cork priest working in a Derry diocese (or vice-versa) may be incomprehensible.

But most difficult of all, as we have already discovered, is the perspective priests from other countries bring to their pastoral style. It used to be said about Pope John Paul that he tried to replicate Polish Catholicism throughout the world. And the problem with African or Indian priests, for example, is that they may try to replicate their own pastoral practices and cause more problems than they will solve.

For instance, if priests are used to not allowing laity to be involved in worship, how long will they survive in an Irish parish? If priests are used to not allowing women to be involved in parish life, except in a peripheral and patronising way, how long will they survive in an Irish parish? Or more to the point how long will an Irish parish survive them? They could empty our emptying churches in a decade.

As the Irish Catholic Church has an apparently flawless talent for getting things exactly wrong, we need to be careful with solutions devised by a phalanx of ultra-careful bishops scavenging for any solution that will help them resist going down the obvious road, even though Pope Francis is frantically waving them on with a green flag.

We need to re-think this new strategy through before we find ourselves going down another cul-de-sac.

9 Responses

  1. Michael C.

    Why are the Irish Bishops so afraid to grasp any nettle, even when prompted to do so by Pope Francis.
    They run to Rome for the least reason, e.g. They have failed to produce a new “pre- nuptial enquiry form” for over two years as they await approval from Rome for their new design! (A pre-nuptial enquiry form is an administrative form that is filled in by a priest with a person intending to marry, establishing the facts of baptism, that they have a very basic understanding of the meaning of Christian marriage and that a person has no impediment to marrying). It doesn’t require a doctorate to produce, a moderate Junior Cert. I suspect would suffice.
    However I have more or less given up on them and expect nothing from them anymore, that way i don’t frustrate myself.
    Maybe they should read today’s reading to see what qualities might be needed for a person to become ministers of the church! Who will they listen to if not St. Paul, hardly a raving liberal radical.
    1 Timothy 3:1-13

  2. John

    There is one possible benefit from the situation described above – namely the withering of the population of bishops and the culture that many of them inhabit.

  3. Mary Vallely

    Yes, entirely agree with Brendan Hoban and those words of Enda McDonagh on an RTE programme a few years back, echo through my head still. Enda shook his head sadly and said, “I think we have to be broken down more.” We haven’t hit rock bottom yet so the PN et alia can stick with their optimism for a while longer. The solutions to the shortage of priests are so blatantly obvious but until we hit the very bottom they’ll not be addressed.
    We have a wonderful Indian priest in our parish because we have quite a large Indian community but he doesn’t know the culture here and it is important that our native priests continue to serve. There is much to be gained in learning from other cultures and traditions but our own is important too and it needs to be cherished and nourished.

  4. Chris McDonnell

    What follows was published in the UK Catholic Times last September 11th, to whom I am grateful for publication. As Secretary of the Movement for Married Clergy here in UK, I would like to share it with you.

    It is rare that a complex problem has a single, simple solution. That is certainly true when we come to ask the question regarding vocation to the priesthood.

    A crisis is facing the Western Church with ordination numbers at an all-time low. Ireland and the United Kingdom are already feeling the draught of an aging profile amongst serving priests and the imminent prospect of no replacements for those who retire through ill health or who die whilst still serving in parishes.

    The stop-gap solution has been to amalgamate parishes when priests cannot be found to minister in both parishes. But this is exactly what it is, a stop-gap. Worse, adding an increased work load to a man already in his sixties is not only impractical but is also unjust.

    We have a small window of opportunity when we might be able to examine solutions that at present are being refuted, one of them being the setting aside of the compulsory celibacy ruling as necessary for ordination. There is, after all, no reason other than the accepted discipline of the church why marriage and ordination are considered mutually exclusive sacraments.

    With a serving bishop in Ireland, Leo O’Reilly of Kilmore diocese and a number of retired bishops in England and Wales, accepting that the time has come to revise that discipline, we really should be taking the first steps towards doing so.

    With the encouragement given by Francis to Bishop Erwin Krautler in Brazil to find a solution locally to a serious shortage of priests and not expect Rome to solve everything, the Bishops’ Conference in Brazil have set up a national commission to examine the question.

    We should do likewise.

    For years under successive popes, this has been a subject off-limits.’ That’s how things are, that how they have been
    (at least since 1139 and the Lateran Council) and it is not going to change now’. So, we have sleep-walked into a crisis. Further, those have had the temerity to broach the subject in recent years have had their knuckles rapped and told quite clearly to get back in line.

    That is not to say that there are not (and will not in the future) be men who accept a celibate vocation to the priesthood and who live out their vocation accordingly. But for many others it has become an unnecessary burden that has hindered their ministry. You have only to look at the number of priests who have left in recent years when they fell in love with a woman, for the Church could not accommodate both vocations. It has been a tragedy for the individuals concerned and for the community they once served.

    Yet here in England we are now following that path. With the setting up of the Ordinariate and the individual decisions made by Anglicans, already in Orders, married with a family, now active as serving priests in our parishes, we have a valuable experience to draw on. We already have a twin track of ministerial experience, and in the vast majority of instances, it has been accepted by the people. I would go further. Not only have parishes accepted a married priest in their community, others have seriously asked the question, why ever not?

    Of course, we would have to re-examine the structure of parishes, how we would maintain a married priest and his family. But then that would be no bad thing. Our parish structure has long needed review and this would be just the occasion to do it.

    Many of these married priests would be non-stipendary, that is they would have paid employment outside of the parish and so supporting them would not be a total responsibility for the people. That is already the case in the Anglican Church. It would demand of the people a commitment to mission that at present is easier left to the parish priest. Many ‘non-priestly’ aspects of the current workload would have to be undertaken by others quite able to meet the challenge. It might be a bumpy ride to start with, but would be worthwhile in the long run.

    Then there is the thorny questions of many fine priests who left to marry. How can we offer them a hand of friendship and welcome back to active priesthood, those who wish to come? Without doubt, many would not now consider that option, still painfully remembering the manner in which the Church let them go. But what would be more appropriate in the coming Year of Mercy for the invitation to be made. For many who suffered losing these men from their parish community would gladly extend the hand of friendship to sustain their return.

    It was disappointing to read recently that Cardinal Nicholls did not see the issue of a married clergy as ‘a pressing problem’. Others see that differently. The prospect of the Eucharist being denied the people over a matter of discipline does not sit well with a pilgrim people.

    The consideration of a Commission to explore the arguments should now be a matter of urgent consideration for the next meeting of the Bishops’ Conference. Nothing is lost by such a conversation and a great deal is gained by taking the first steps. We might welcome an individual bishop expressing public support for a change, as have the emeritus bishops recently, but it would be important for the Conference as a whole to recognise the importance of the discussion and move forward with one voice.

    The Church of my childhood, the post war years that led up to the Vatican Council, was a very different place to the Church my grandchildren are experiencing as they grow up. Our society has changed, the cultural life is very different and we must recognise that. To continue seeking vocations to the priesthood within a cultural framework that now is history will not help us. The Church is tired and needs the refreshment of its faith. The conservative nature of some of those who are in seminaries is an attempt to regain the security of time no longer with us. That is not the way to go for although the holy comfort zone of the past is a cul de sac that might satisfy our emotions. It does little help us on our current journey.

    We have to recognise the huge changes in our society and how best we might respond to them. Bishop Leo O’Reilly in Ireland is reported as saying that he decided to take the matter to the Bishops’ Conference after ‘listening to his people’ More of that listening needs to take place. When we listen to each other, there is the chance that we might hear something new, that we might learn other ways.

    The faith and life experience in the Church that we have received from our families is a treasure given to us upon which we can build. It is not static, inert, unchangeable. In our time we have to live it and cherish it, react to where we are, not with a nostalgic glance over shoulders to a previous time but forward with faith is the gospel.

    If that means being honest with each other about contemporary needs then that is all to the good. The courageous conversations have to take place if we are to avoid the Eucharistic famine that will inevitably be our lot if we ignore what is plainly in view.

  5. Anne

    Married Anglcan Priests who covert to Catholicism replacing Catholic Priests who leave to get married, ?Widowed men allowed to join the priesthood only after the death of their wives,? I sometimes think the Catholic Church lives in a parralell universe where women are looked upon as aliens.and are to be kept out of ministry at all costs..So much for Equality .

  6. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    Well, the law is the law. How do laws change? They are challenged. How do you challenge Canon law? Is Ireland party to the UN Charter of Human Rights?

    Article 16.

    (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

    So technically, if Ireland is party, then celibacy is an issue that has never been challenged in an international court, one would think. Rome can have its rules I guess but whether they are able to enforce them on citizens around the world is your issue. Not to mention that your own golden child, St. Thomas Aquinas stated it perverse to force us into laws above our own nature and doing so would open the doorway to ethical relativism on an individual level and totalitarianism in societal and state levels.

    I can’t understand why this has never been challenged before considering it is practically illegal for the Roman Catholic Church to even imply that celibacy be mandatory based on its own Church and the State. Must be a friendly agreement between Rome and the UN, I guess. Well, the international ACP could be the first to come forward and challenge it, I guess, or continue to tell people they want someone to challenge it. Roman Catholics world wide would support your challenge and sign a petition to have this entered into world courts, I’m sure. Show me where to sign.

  7. Brian Eyre

    Preparing for Married Priests

    Who would ever think that the day would come when the Catholic Church, of the Latin Rite, would be talking about married priests. Thanks to Pope Francis, who recently opened the debate on this subject, we now have some Bishops who “with courage” are discussing this question and starting to consider the ordination of suitable married men, “viri probati”.

    The priest shortage is becoming critical in some countries as a result of which church groups such as “Future Church” in the States are working to keep their churches open and when Pope Francis visits the States they will call on him to try and give an answer to this problem.
    In recent days the parish of Ballymore in Co Westmeath Ireland called on the Bishop to retain a full-time resident priest in their parish. This problem of the shortage of priests is being felt also in Australia, Germany, Austria, Scotland, Switzerland, England where the numbers of priests are declining everyday.
    So there is an awareness today on the part of a few Bishops and Lay organisations that something has to be done and that there is some truth in the Darwinian mandate that either you adapt or you die and so the ordination of married men is beginning to be considered. It is a big step and one that requires a lot of thought and planning so that it starts off on the right foot. For centuries we have been accustomed to celibate priests that the presence of married priests in parishes will need to be carefully introduced.

    Of the many questions to be looked at one of them will be the financial support of married priests. One of the reasons why celibacy was introduced into the Church was for financial reasons, the church wanted to protect its property from inheritance. Pope Pelagius the First made new priests agree that offspring could not inherit church property. It would be a great pity now that there is the possibility of married men being ordained priests that this could be hindered for financial reasons.
    However, as we are talking about married men it is understood that these will be men who already have a secular job, and that they will continue to exercise this job even after ordination while at the same time organizing their time for pastoral work. Parishes usually decide on what they can pay their celibate priests so too they can come to an agreement with the married priest.

    Another question to be raised will be the amount of time the married priest will be able to give to the parish, for as was said above, he will also have his job. I personally know some fine celibate parish priests who are studying for a secular degree such as law, architecture, counselling. They are absent from their parishes a good part of the morning and part of the afternoon with university classes and their parish doesn’t fall to pieces because they are not around.
    There are others who work in the diocesan offices and who also are not present all day in their parish. This question of presence is a matter of organisation and pastoral planning. A priest who is absent from his parish for part of the day can prepare teams of people to take on pastoral services when he is not there. So you can have a team of people who can take care of the burial ceremony or another team can hold a Holy Communion service for the sick in their homes. As regards the amount of time that married priests could be available we should be thinking of teams of 2 or 3 priests working in the same geographical area or parish. These could organize their time so that during the week one of them is always on duty while the others are at work and parishioners can know how and where to contact him.

    Right from the beginning of the process of ordaining married men, the Bishop should work in close union with the couple and not just with the husband. The wives of future married priests need to be part of the discussion, they should be in on this decision, if not then we will continue to foster a clerical male dominated organisation that has been around for centuries. The Bishop should visit the couple in their home and on the occasion of these visits let him be a good listener and observer. It will be good if the wife has had or has pastoral experience, although this is not an absolute requirement, just as in the case of a doctor’s wife, she doesn’t have to practise medicine.The Bishop can learn by listening to the pastoral experience and vision of the wife for she will bring a feminine touch and sensitivity to pastoral matters, which sometimes is lacking when these questions are discussed only by men.

    In the midst of this debate we need to ponder too the question of the environment that the priest’s wife will expect to encounter in the parish. What feelings, attitudes and reactions will she inspire from the parishioners? How will she be received by the community? Some people in the parish may feel threatened by her presence for they may be afraid of loosing their “pastoral position” which they probably have held for a long time and which they have been carrying out with great dedication. She on her part will need to be wise and sensitive to people’s feelings and work perhaps behind the scenes. If she wants to do some pastoral work then she could start a new pastoral service that no one as yet is in charge of in the community.

    A married priest and his wife should foster a prayer-life together. Prayer will help them in their role as parents and help them run their house-hold and be good pastoral agents. Here the words of Saint Paul to Timothy, ch 3 v 1 – 6 are very appropriate: “For if someone does not know how to take care of his own house how can he take care of the Church of God”?

    In the beginning parishioners may find it a bit strange to see the priest walking arm in arm or hand in hand with his wife or see them show some manifestation of affection in public for each other such as a gentle and loving kiss. However with time these normal ways of behavior between husbands and wives will be accepted and understood by everybody. Recently, Pope Francis speaking at a seminar for families said to the couples: “Children need to see their mothers and fathers in love : “Your children need to discover by watching you that it is beautiful to love one another”. He then recounted a story of a little boy who told him that he had seen his parents kiss each other and Pope Francis said: “It is a beautiful witness”. Likewise a married priest should not be afraid to show his love for his wife in public.

    While the possibility of ordaining married men is being discussed it would also be necessary to approach this question from another perspective and not just place all the emphasize on the fact that there is a great shortage of priests. As the essence of priesthood is service this quality should be looked for both in the celibate and married priest. People will be very quick to distinguish the priest who serves and is happy serving from the one who is just holding down a job be he celibate or married. In daily life we see many examples of single and married people working together to serve the community. The community benefits from this team work and nobody queries this common united effort for each one in his own particular state be he/she single or married is contributing to the common good, likewise too celibate and married priests working together to serve the community can be a tremendous witness.

    One last question to be considered is that of dress. If the married priest is working on a regular basis with a community he will be known and recognised as the married priest in that area and everyone too will know who his wife is so he won’t need to stand out by wearing some special clerical garb when he is out among the community doing pastoral work such as visiting the sick, organising human promotion actions, giving a Bible course in homes to groups of families ,animating a youth gathering etc.etc. On the occasions though when he is celebrating Mass then the proper liturgical vestments will be appropriate.

    Brian Eyre, Catholic Married Priest, Recife, Brazil

  8. Anne

    The married priest could also be the stay at home husband while his wife could be the main breadwinner. Also they should provide their own home like everyone else and leave parish property to be used for parochial purposes. In the past I was “the Sergeants wife” a title I did not like ,I lived in Garda Station for a few years. There was never any question of inheriting the property,it just went with the job. I supported my husband but his job was his not mine .What I am trying to say is that if it ever happens that priests be allowed to marry, the woman is marrying the man not his job.

  9. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    Anne,
    The more people think about this with a rational viewpoint like you bring to the table, the more likely this is going to happen. I still believe that if the global ACP does not bring a proper challenge to the table, on behalf of the countries that recognize the UN Charter on Human Rights, their hopes and aspirations will remain just that. The Vatican has to be forced to make the decision within a certain environment. 10,000 priests coming forward and saying that they understand the commitment to celibacy they subscribed to but is it even within the requirements of civil law to ask that it be this way. That’s the challenge I guess but I’m no lawyer. I’d like to hear what one has to say about it.


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