Diocese by diocese, the Catholic Church in Ireland is making radical structural changes to address the disappearance of its most iconic resource – the priests. Within a decade, those aging priests holding the post will be out of service. Many who are already in their 70s will have reached their eternal reward.
The question that believers are asking is best summed up in the title of the book: Who will break bread for us?
In his 2013 publication, Mayo priest Father Brendan Hoban predicted a cliff in terms of vocations and warned that a Eucharistic famine was imminent.
He cited statistics from his own diocese of Killala, where 46 priests gathered for their annual retreat in 1982. In 2032, when the Irish Church celebrates 1,600 years since the arrival of St Patrick, the number of priests at Killala is likely to have dropped to just six.
Archbishop Francis Duffy of Tuam, a diocese that was once a bastion of faith with a plethora of vocations, said last weekend: “There is decline everywhere.” Every Irish diocese is affected.
Last year there were only 26 seminarians at the National Seminary in Maynooth. That’s an average of one for every diocese in the country over every seven years of training.
Thirty years ago there were more than 500 seminarians in Ireland. dr Addressing the congregation in Westport Parish on Reek Sunday, Duffy said: “I suggest you look at your priest, he may be the last in a long line of resident pastors and may not be replaced.”
In this new reality, people will increasingly find that their priest who retires will not be replaced. Pastorally, they are cared for by a team of priests who serve several parishes.
This may work well on paper, but it will cause the relationship between priests and their flock to decline. It’s hard to be in a close relationship with someone who’s only there fleetingly.
The decline in the number of priests is not just a logistical headache for the bishops. The argument is: without a priest there is no mass, without a mass there is no church.
The bishops hope that the laity will step in to fill the gaps revealed by the shortage of priests.
As part of these new strategies being introduced in all Irish dioceses, parishes will need to work much more closely together and share resources, including priests.
In Cork and Ross, Bishop Gavin hopes that the “families of parishes” working together will give parishes the opportunity to prepare together for baptism, first communion, confirmation, weddings and funerals.
These new arrangements require a new type of service. Most priests were trained to work as individuals, but in the future there will be a team of priests, all equal and with the same rights and duties.
Not everyone is convinced that an already strained clergy will benefit from the new structures.
Father Tim Hazelwood, pastor of Killeagh-Inch in Co Cork, said it would fall to an aging priesthood to implement the new regulations.
“It means you’re giving older men extra work, which isn’t fair,” he said.
He also wonders if communities are willing to work together. “Most communities I know are rivals in the GAA, so I don’t think they’re going to appreciate that notion of family,” he added.
Some in the church argue that while these radical changes could paint over the cracks, ultimately, in order for the church to renew itself, it must tackle issues such as married ministers, female deacons and priests and adopt a more welcoming approach to the divorced, remarried and LGBTQ+ people.
As Fr. Hazelwood said, “a fundamental change must take place for the Church to survive” or it will merely “rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic.”
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/parish-rivalry-and-aged-clergy-dont-bode-well-for-a-church-running-out-of-priests-41888638.html Parochial rivalry and aging clergy bode ill for a church that is running out of priests