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.