Brendan Hoban: Without Priests We Won’t Have a Church

Without priests, we won’t have a Church

Western People 2.11.2021

This is the story of John Rowland, a native (like myself) of Ballycastle in north Mayo. Born in 1903, John was at school with my father, first in Ballycastle NS on the Glen Road and later as boarders in St Muredach’s College. Later again, (like my uncles Tom, Michael and John and my aunt Baby), John Rowland emigrated to America.

A glittering academic career followed. John was awarded a scholarship to the Sorbonne in Paris, one of the great universities of Europe, where he was conferred with a doctorate in physics and he taught at a college in Illinois before lecturing in Notre Dame, one of the leading universities in the US.

John also had a glittering public career and, apparently, a happy life. For 33 years he worked for the Ford Motor Company in Detroit and he was a test pilot during World War II, meeting the great and the good like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, General de Gaulle of France and Charles Linbdergh, the famous pilot. John’s first wife died in 1962, he remarried in 1965 and died in 1990. He was survived by five children, two step-daughters and two step-sons, 23 grandchildren and two great grandchildren. A full life.

But there’s more. What I didn’t mention is that John, immediately after he went to America entered a seminary to study for the priesthood. He was ordained for the diocese of Rockford, Illinois in 1929 and subsequently left the active ministry.

What a loss to Rockford and what a loss to the Catholic Church. If he had remained in the priesthood, his ability and intelligence, might have brought promotion to the rank of bishop or even (who knows) cardinal and the Catholic Church might have benefitted hugely from the contribution of an able and talented man.

Or if his family had been able to afford the Maynooth fees and he was ordained for his native diocese of Killala, what might he have contributed to the Catholic Church in Killala and further afield? Either way, the Catholic Church lost out on an extremely gifted man whose lavish talents and abilities were lost.

While I’m not privy to John Rowland’s motivations in leaving the priesthood, what’s clear is that his decision is one he has shared with thousands and thousands of Catholic priests in recent years. What an extraordinary cumulative loss it has been!

I thought of John Rowland when I read recently comments of Archbishop Michael Neary of Tuam on the decline in the number of priests in Tuam in the last 25 years. The key message was that, from 1996 – 2021, Tuam had lost 60% of their priests.

While it isn’t clear why 72 priests left Tuam diocese over a quarter of a century, we can presume there were a number of reasons: some left the priesthood; others moved to another diocese; some were refused an opportunity to minister because of a perceived failure; and others of course, had died.

Tuam’s story, albeit unusual in that the decline in priest numbers has been so publicly named, is the story of every diocese in Ireland. It’s also the same in that no apparent effort has been made to ask what seems an obvious question: why have so many priests walked away from priesthood? If a diocese, like Tuam, lost 60% of its priests in 25 years, why are questions not being asked as to the reason why? And why is it taken for granted in dioceses that priests walk away when the loss in terms of personnel, talent and application has (accumulatively) been so devastating?

While bishops have ritually repeated the received episcopal wisdom that ‘society’ or ‘secularization’ or ‘loss of faith’ are the reasons for every perceived failure, the more obvious reason for the crisis in Catholic priesthood is the refusal to re-image priesthood for a very different world.

It is obvious to everyone that priests are now an endangered species in Ireland. Within 20 years there will be few priests left, and (as most priests now are 60 years-plus) most of those still alive in 2041 will be in their 80s. It is also obvious to most people, to most priests and, I suspect, to most bishops that the main and obvious reason why so many priests have walked away (and there are so few vocations now) is the celibacy requirement for priesthood.

Catholic parents, committed to their faith and their Church, will tell anyone (who cares to listen) that they don’t want their sons to become priests because the life of priests to them seems too bereft, lonely, isolated. A different priesthood would be significantly more attractive to them and their sons (and daughters).

Peculiarly, it can be argued, that the authorities in the Catholic Church have effectively decided that the future of the Church can be placed at risk rather than make celibacy a choice rather than an obligation for priesthood.

Because, as we know the Eucharist (Mass), is at the heart of the Catholic faith. If we haven’t enough priests, we won’t have Mass for our people and if we haven’t the Mass, then we won’t have a Catholic Church.

What part of that last sentence does anyone not understand?

Pope Francis’s solution seems to be that if the people are brought into an effective participation in the governance of the Church, eventually pennies will begin to drop. But the real question is whether that word ‘eventually’ will mean ‘too late?’

The difficult truth is that we cannot afford to keep losing the John Rowlands.





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  1. Ger Hopkins says:

    Brendan Hoban: Without Priests…

    I hesitate to say it but I don’t feel this article by Brendan is up to his usual high standard.

    I don’t know why John Rowland left ministry. And Brendan doesn’t seem to know any more about it than he is sharing here. Neither of us are in a position to say that the principal reason John Rowland left the priesthood was that he couldn’t marry. Brendan admits this. And yet that seems to be the jumping off point for the whole article.

    I would guess that the vast majority of the decline in the number of priests in Tuam between 1996 and 2021 is down to them having died. That’s a guess on my part but if someone wants to make the case that the principal or even a significant contribution to the decline in numbers was men ‘walking away from the priesthood’ then they would need to furnish actual numbers to back that up. For Tuam to support Brendan’s argument we would need to see the numbers who actually chose to leave. Otherwise it’s hard to see how Tuam is much help to him.

    The final implication – if Priests could marry there would be an increase in the numbers being ordained – is obviously undermined by the experience of the protestant churches in the UK. And is there anyone here who needs reminding that the more liberal those protestant churches were the faster was their decline, both in numbers of vicars and of worshippers. This experiment has been tried. As far as numbers are concerned we already know the answer.

    This year four men entered Diocesan training for the whole of Ireland. Meanwhile four Irishmen entered the Dominicans. And the ICKSP and the FSSP each welcomed two more. Why are these conservative options the ones that are growing? What is it about them that young men with a vocation are finding attractive?

  2. Sean O’Conaill says:

    Brendan Hoban: Without Priests We Won’t Have a Church…

    “Because, as we know the Eucharist (Mass), is at the heart of the Catholic faith. If we haven’t enough priests, we won’t have Mass for our people and if we haven’t the Mass, then we won’t have a Catholic Church.”

    There is a mistake here, I fear.

    As the Mass is a ritual – a liturgical representation of what it points to – it is what is pointed to that lies at the heart of the Catholic faith, not the ritual itself.

    We are all infinitely loved – and called to love. The Mass is completed only when we hear and respond to that call.

    If Jesus had initiated the ritual – and not subsequently submitted to the cross in a supreme act of self-giving – in secular space – would the ritual ever have been re-enacted down the ages? What meaning could it have had?

    Was it not the secular reality of the crucifixion that made the religious ritual meaningful, rather than vice versa? If Catholics fetishised the liturgy alone, and did not fulfil its meaning in their own lives of self-giving – in secular space – would the liturgy have been understood and honoured?

    And if our clergy cannot connect the Mass with Catholic social teaching – the call to social justice in the real world outside – including resistance to the current epidemic of selfishness, bullying, abuse, vanity, addiction and over-consumption therein – can it truly be said that THEY understand the ritual they re-enact?

    Are too many unable to notice those currently making real rather than merely liturgical sacrifice – many without reference to ‘religion’?

    For me it is the inability of too many Irish clergy to explain convincingly WHY the Mass is at the heart of the Catholic faith that explains the incomprehension of younger generations and the current crisis of the priesthood.

    The male and celibate requirements for ordination are unnecessary and based upon a mistaken selection from Jesus’s own life choices – but relaxation of those alone would not make the Mass meaningful and transformative.

    No bearable or honourable future for humankind is now possible without real self-giving (sacrifice), and all of us need to attend to that call. Until celebrants of the Mass can connect the liturgy with that call – from the suffering world outside the church – they will not convince the young that the Mass is worth attending, or worth volunteering to preside over. Therein lies the true current crisis of the priesthood.

  3. Mattie Long says:

    Brendan Hoban: Without Priests…

    Regardless of why the number of priests has declined so dramatically in my own diocese of Tuam over the past 25 years (and even more so since I was ordained some 40 plus years ago), be it by reason of death, illness, retirement, or personal decision, the essential fact is that they have not been replaced.
    The situation is much the same nationwide.
    Priesthood as currently constituted, male, celibate, full time and professional (in the sense of attracting payment), is no longer sustainable, it does not attract enough candidates to enable priestly ministry to continue in any real way in the immediate future in the vast majority of parish church communities in Ireland. Perhaps we need to look at what is essential for ministry and what is not; see what attracts and what is off-putting.

    Also, a little fact checking might be in order before comments are made about our fellow Christian Churches. The Church of England would appear to be attracting vocations.

    From Statistics 2020 report FINAL.pdf

    Clergy serving in the Church of England.

    “7,670 stipendiary clergy; 330 of whom were ordained during 2020
    2,880 self supporting clergy in parochial posts; 250 of whom were ordained during 2020”.

    It would appear that 580 were ordained in 2020.

    The Church of Ireland website names 12 who were ordained to priesthood in 2020.

    Maybe we should ask what attracted them to ministry?

  4. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Brendan Hoban: Without Priests…

    Thanks Mattie @3. I tried yesterday to post this same link from CoE Research& Statistics with some further observations on Ger Hopkins’ broad brush strokes calling for “numbers” but making quite inaccurate claims about the Anglican “experiment”. My comment, unfortunately, disappeared from my screen before I could post it. But, briefly, there may be much to be said in favour of the joint stipendiary and self-supporting provision.

    Incidentally, pace Ger Hopkins, the CofE had 580 ‘ordinands entering training’ during 2020, the same number as were ordained that same year. They’re getting something right.

    The other big ‘takeaway’ from the CofE 2019-21 statistics is the steady, even rapid, rise in female ordination, including ordination to the episcopate since 2015. Of the 2019 ordinations, 51% were female; of the 2020 ordinations, 55% were female.

    Since 2015, the CofE has 24 women bishops of various grades and functions, including Bishop of London Sarah Mullally.
    Of course as many as eight Anglican bishops, or retired bishops, skipped over to the Catholic church since 2010, three of them this year, two in the past six weeks. The reason given by six of them was the advent or imminent advent of women bishops. Westminster’s latest big catch has been former Anglican bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, tipped for Canterbury in 2002 when Rowan Williams actually got the nod from the crypto-RC Tony Blair! Nazir-Ali is certainly very much the social conservative, but his reasons are much more noble than feminaphobia. He will be Fr Michael in the next few weeks.

    Of course all this Tiber-crossing and Anglican-Ordinariate mullarkey could not have happened without the opportunism of both Cardinals Basil & Vincent. And who ever believed that Roman Catholic priests had to be celibate? The Ordinariate ensures the future of both Anglican patrimony and Anglican matrimony for those who wish to remain priests with the bigger club.

  5. James Martin says:

    Brendan Hoban: Without Priests…

    I’m reading this article from the “saintly” confines of St Louis MO in the USA. We are as well experiencing reduced numbers in presbyterate census. I am a now retired Deacon, and I fear that our faithful members believe that without priests there will be no Catholic Church at all. More’s that pity!

    Yes at our heart is the Eucharist, but the church grew and proliferated for many years with militant faithful who did not receive Communion, due to fasting requirements, and insistence on recent absolution from sin, and on and on. But it is our firm belief and ecclesial Hope that projects us forward. I don’t have the solution to the disappearance of priests, but I believe that it is possible to have – what are they called – simplex priests – who could say the words of institution? But the priesthood is far more than a few words. It is the very nature of a bachelor friend who is wise and unfettered by the concerns of daily life, that makes the priest a unique and desirable friend and advisor. So maybe there will be fewer of them, but to somehow dilute the priestly commitment to Jesus’ Bride would be a shame. Elective or mandated, the unattached priest who can minister with pride in his vocation is irreplaceable in our faith, and in my opinion should continue. The people have not left Mass because there is no priest, they have left the pews because those priests and the Church no longer seem to be meeting their spiritual needs. Let’s do some self examination and mend our ways!

  6. Brendan Hoban says:

    Brendan Hoban: Without Priests…

    James @ 5
    I don’t think I suggested that marriage should be compulsory.

  7. Paddy Ferry says:

    Brendan Hoban: Without Priests…

    Brendan, thank you for another really thought provoking piece.

    How we have all prayed for vocations to the priesthood, virtually all our lives. I took part in the music ministry at monthly vocations masses — every first Thursday of the month — at St. Catharine’s Convent of Mercy here in Edinburgh for many years. Obviously, we were praying for the wrong kind of vocations because God certainly did not answer our prayers.

    And, many of us have spent most of our lives bemoaning the fact that married men or those who wish to marry could not become priests because that, we believed, was a major part the vocations problem. You still obviously think, Brendan, that is still an important part of the problem.

    I now think that it is much more complex than that. Mattie made a good point in suggesting we ask what attracts so many to ministry in the Church of England and in the Church of Ireland.

    Equally important, I think, would be to ask what makes ministry in our Catholic priesthood so unattractive that so few now consider it.

    I think there are two major issues.

    Firstly, there is the issue of unacceptable teachings and doctrine.

    Take just two examples, our attitude to women and homosexuals and the wider LGBTQ community. We insult and denigrate boys and girls, and men and women who are gay by calling them “intrinsically disordered … with more or less a strong tendency towards an intrinsic moral evil”. Outrageous and disgraceful!

    And, in the case of our attitude towards women we still seem to be influenced by the ancient Greek atheists who considered women misbegotten males, in other words, inferior. Here we are in the 21st century when virtually all of the secular world can recognise the equality of women and, yet, it is still beyond our capacity as an institution — despite the miracle that is Pope Francis — to do the same.

    What decent, self-respecting young Catholic man with any sense of personal integrity could sign up to any of that?

    Bernard Whelan correctly reminded me elsewhere on this site that Fr. John O’Malley’s phrase in his book “What happened at Vatican II” to describe the period leading up to the Council was “the long 19th century”.

    Well, the phrase, “the long middle ages” would, I think, be appropriate when discussing our Church’s attitude towards women and homosexuality.

    And there is so much other doctrine that people can accept — if they do accept them — only, I would guess, by completely dumbing down their intellectual capacity and natural common sense.

    The second issue must obviously be the trashing our church’s credibility has taken with all the revelations and scandals we have endured since the 1990s.

    First and foremost was the realisation of the widespread sexual violation of children by priests and the equally criminal cover up by the bishops.
    It is interesting to note that the French bishops have now taken immediate responsibility for the abuse scandal within the French institutional church after the revelation that 330,000 children were abused over the last few decades. So, it seems lessons have been learned.

    Of course in Ireland we had so much more than the clerical sex abuse of children. We also had the industrial schools, the Magdalene Laundries and, of course, the Mother and Baby Homes. We can never seem to get away from these scandals. I thought I knew all there was to know about the Tuam hellhole though I realised there were many other such institutions around the country.

    So, just last Sunday night on STV, the Scottish version of ITV, my wife and I suddenly saw advertised a programme called ‘The Missing Children’ which I think was initially produced by RTÉ and we decided to watch it. It was all about Tuam. Well, once again, we were shocked, appalled and deeply saddened. We now have a little granddaughter who is just over a year and we could not help but imagine such abuse which included starvation being inflicted on our little girl and how it would have affected her. It left us genuinely disturbed. How could such absolute evil exist under the guise of Catholic Christianity?

    Adult men who had been children in Tuam described how their bellies were very swollen. The medical term is Ascities, a sure sign of serious malnutrition and starvation as fluid builds up between the two layers of the peritoneum.

    I did not realise until last Sunday night that the child trafficking that was commonplace — and that is exactly what it was, child trafficking — was such a lucrative business for the religious orders. We realised that there were thousands of Michaels and Philomenas all over the country. You might say that this did not involve priests. However, we learned in the programme that, of course, these exported children required passports before they could leave the country and the application documentation for these passports were always signed off by the local priest.

    I am digressing now but one thing has left us puzzled. Why does our government not sanction the immediate complete excavation of the site? We saw the results of the exploratory excavation of the sewers where the dead children were dumped and the experts responsible for the dig were all interviewed. Surely the least that the innocent victims and their siblings, who are still with us, deserve is the complete excavation?

    We were told that the cost of such an operation would be €13.5 million and the Bon Secours Order has offered €2.5 million. Now, it was explained on the programme that the Order is a multi-billion euro organisation which provides private health care in many countries around the world. So, they could certainly afford it. Do they still not just get it?!!

    A final word on the shortage of priests. The celibacy question is now more complicated still. I don’t think it is a problem for many –perhaps all — of the young men who now decide to enter seminary. And that certainly applies not just to Ireland.

    PS. Mattie, it is good to hear from you.


  8. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Brendan Hoban: Without Priests…

    #7 “And there is so much other doctrine that people can accept — if they do accept them — only, I would guess, by completely dumbing down their intellectual capacity and natural common sense.”

    As you have preceded this only with criticism of ‘teachings’ on the LGBTQ issues, Paddy, you leave us to guess at the content of the ‘other doctrine’ you see as ‘dumbing down’. In the end what is left for you to hang on to, in that mysterious hold-all known sometimes as ‘the deposit of faith’?

    Does not even your honest revulsion from all of the depravities you list emanate from some core of conviction about what is nevertheless central and foundational? Are you not rejecting what you are sure Jesus would have rejected also – so what is it that you believe about Jesus that should keep you here?

    When Kieran O’Mahony admitted to the ACP AGM that for decades the ‘handing on’ of faith has not happened in Ireland, to what faith was he referring exactly?

    This is the island on which we find ourselves marooned by the magisterial insistence that while all truth belongs to a hierarchy, nothing in the Catechism is to be considered unimportant or dispensable. If we cannot accept, for example, those articles that relate to the LGBTI issue, are we therefore doomed to abandon the Catechism in toto, including the creedal seed from which it grew so profusely?

    For myself I can only say that I pray the Creed in the conviction that its meaning is that truth and love will prevail over all adversity, including all current or future church scandal. Perhaps it will be through the graces received through sincere prayer that the unnecessary ‘doctrinal’ accretions of history are to be pushed out of sight, and then, sometime, out of print also?

    Not for nothing does Richard Rohr speak of the value of subtraction when it comes to the content of faith, but atheism is for me a step too far. I believe we are ‘accompanied’ – and that the Creed is essentially, and historically, true. Even the insistence that Jesus is judge of the living is vital – for that judgement will surely apply also to all past, present and future injustice in the church.

  9. Ger Hopkins says:

    Brendan Hoban: Without Priests…

    Thanks for those stats on the CofE and CofI, Mattie #3. (working). The fact that there were 20 new recruits to the Church of Ireland last year was a surprise. For comparison here are the 2019 stats for vocations in the Catholic Church in England

    I would read things as follows.


    Both churches have shrunk but the Church of England is about twice the size of the Catholic Church in England. 12% of the population vs 7%.
    For comparison purposes the role in the Church of England that corresponds most closely with a Catholic Priest is stipendary clergy – a Vicar.
    Last year in the CofE 180 men began training to be a stipendary clergyman.
    Meanwhile (in 2019) in the English Catholic Church 56 men began training for priesthood.
    To sum up: In England the CofE is twice as big as the Catholic Church and produced nearly three times as many new entrants.
    Given its size it attracts 50% more recruits. Maybe that is down to the life of a Vicar involving fewer sacrifices – celibacy in particular.


    Would a 50% improvement in the number of new recruits make any practical difference in the Irish Church? Obviously not. There were only 8 new entrants in Ireland last year; 4 in to Diocesan training and 4 in to the Dominicans.

    The numbers problem the Church is dealing with in Ireland has nothing to do with celibacy. I know this, the people I know know this, but for those who may want to believe otherwise the Irish statistics compel us to face reality.

    For those who need convincing:

    In 2020 in the Church of Ireland 7 men started training for stipendary positions (assuming the same breakdown here as in England).
    In the Catholic Church 8 men started training.

    But the Irish Catholic Church is 30 times bigger than the CofI. A Church 30 times bigger only produced the same numbers of new recruits. That is orders and orders of magnitude different than the situation in England. England tells us that celibacy cannot be responsible for an effect that big.


    So what does account for the difference?

    What is the big difference here in Ireland? Well that would presumably be the violent anti Catholicism in our culture. The young Catholic deciding on entering the priesthood also has to weigh up spending the next part of his life being sneered at and his beliefs mocked and misrepresented in the public discussion. Years of prejudice and discrimination await him.

    Sean has referred to the ‘disgracing of the Irish church at the hands of the media’ as a ‘deliverance in disguise’. The Church of Ireland doesn’t seem to get remotely the same amount of help.


    When I mentioned the attraction of the Irish Dominicans I highlighted their conservatism but I neglected something else. Something that people also think of as one of the advantages of married Priesthood. Companionship. Along with their conservatism the Dominicans also offer a young man the support of a community. On the other hand a young man thinking of entering Diocesan training in Ireland today is probably looking at a future on his own in a parochial house. In a hostile culture.

    Something I greatly admire about the ACP is the recognition of just how important this kind of mutual support actually is. Especially today. I have no idea why the Dioceses aren’t turning themselves inside out trying to replicate your example. In terms of promoting vocations I think it would be the single most effective investment of energy. Things as simple as promoting and facilitating the use of Whatsapp among Priests in a Diocese. There are a variety of ways Priests could be helped get the word out about regular weekly social gatherings or groups formed around a shared interest. Where necessary there could be financial support for those things. Or, apart from all of that, if there was even just a recognition that there is something here that needs to be fixed.

    Maybe there are initiatives like this already under way in Dioceses across the country, in which case I’d love to hear more about them.

  10. Alan Whelan says:

    Brendan Hoban: Without priests…

    On a brief visit back to London I went to Mass this morning where I met Ballycastle man Liam O’Grady who mentioned Brendan’s article.

    When we meet up after daily Mass we have a little chat about matters of mutual interest. This morning Liam mentioned this article, which he had read recently in The Western People. Liam knows that the late Cora Talbot was a first cousin with an uncle John Rowland. Hence my interest.

    Now to the matter of married clergy. In my time as head of London’s only joint RC/CE school I came into contact with CE clergy who worked in my school during the week and in parishes at the weekend. In my next school I managed to employ a wonderful physics teacher who was also a married Catholic priest who ministered in the local parish at weekends and during holidays. After my retirement a married deacon, of the Ordinariate rite, joined the staff as full time chaplain. Another of my Catholic staff became an ordained CE priest and helped out with nonEucharistic liturgies when asked to do so. He is now working as an Anglican priest in Australia as is his wife a former MMM.

    Here in London and in Essex I know of many thriving parishes led by former Anglican married clergy who are now part of the Ordinariate. They have all been accepted by their parishioners.

    My point, it is not necessary to be celibate to perform such priestly functions. Indeed back in the early ‘70 as a sociology researcher in Fr Michael Hollings Southall Parish I questioned over 200 families on a range of topics of the day. Most were fully open to the notion of a married Catholic priesthood.

    During lockdown in rural Ireland I have experienced first-hand the strengthening of a domestic church at work and I have every confidence in the future.

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