Allow married Catholic priests to halt decline in Ireland, says clergyman
Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent
Saturday 31 December 2016
The Catholic church should accept married men for ordination in an effort to prevent the extinction of priests in Ireland, a prominent clergyman has urged, amid warnings about rising rates of depression, isolation and suicide among the ageing priesthood.
Father Brendan Hoban, a co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), said urgent action was needed to counter the “vocations crisis”. As well as ordaining married men, those who had left the priesthood – sometimes to get married – should be invited back, and women should be ordained as deacons, he told the Guardian.
Married priests would be a “massive change”, he conceded. But he added: “At the end of the day, without the priests there is no mass, and without the mass there is no church. So we see in Ireland a huge eucharistic famine in a few years’ time.”
The number of parish priests in Ireland fell by almost 17% in the 10 years to 2014, from 3,141 to 2,627, according to the church’s most recent statistics. About a quarter of the 2014 figure were thought to be retired already, and “the vast majority of those remaining in the priesthood are in their 60s and 70s – or even 80s,” said Hoban.
A survey by the ACP in 2012 found that almost nine in 10 Irish Catholics wanted priests to be allowed to marry. “The situation is imploding because priests as a body are getting older and older and there are very few priests coming after us. So people see this huge dilemma,” said Hoban.
Pope Francis – who is to visit Ireland in 2018 – was reportedly keen to examine the possibility of married priests at his next synod of bishops. However, the Vatican announced in October that its theme would be young people and vocation after the issue of celibacy was voted down by the body that decides the synod’s agenda.
In an address given in November to the ACP annual general meeting, Hoban warned that the priesthood in Ireland was a “lost tribe; we’ve come to the end of a long line”.
When he was ordained in the 1970s, he told the meeting, “parish priests took for granted that they were admired, respected and supported by their parishioners. Their words were infallible; their decisions confident and unquestioned … Now, we’re often pitied, patronised, reviled, insulted, disrespected, ignored and resented.”
At best, he added, “we’re now little more than a ceremonial presence on the sidelines of life”.
He said priests who “can’t wait to get off the stage” by retiring were manipulated into staying on beyond the age of 75 because of a lack of younger clergymen.
“We’re expected to work longer and harder … The effect of our increased and ever-increasing workload is that as we morph into sacrament-dispensing machines, we find pastoral work less and less satisfying.”
He went on: “With the implosion of our church, the unease and inconvenience and isolation of our lives, with the regrets and ambivalences that disturb our waking hours and with our singular lifestyles, we’re prone to depression in one or other of its malevolent manifestations.”
He told the conference suicide had increased among priests in Ireland, but speaking to the Guardian he acknowledged that there was no firm data available.
“A lot of this is hidden. But certainly in the past number of years, there have been five suicides. We’ve no doubt at all that it is increasing and it hides a whole subculture of depression, isolation and loneliness that priests are now experiencing in parishes and that we ignore at our peril,” he said.
His said his speech had triggered a huge reaction from priests and the public, but a “very muted” response from bishops, whom he accused of at best ignoring the problem and at worst bullying clergymen into working longer and harder.
Since the ACP was established six years ago, it had sought “realistic and respectful engagement with [bishops] to discuss issues that we believe are really fundamental to the future of the Catholic church”. The ACP has about 1,100 members – more than one in three priests in Ireland.
He said meetings with bishops had been friendly. But he added: “They don’t seem to want to talk to us very much any more. We’re very disappointed that they haven’t taken on board what we’re saying. They’re effectively in denial about the problems facing the Catholic church in Ireland.”
Hoban acknowledged that the church had lost respect in society “because of what’s happened particularly in respect of the child sexual abuse scandals and the way they were handled – denials, lack of transparency and openness”.
Individual priests and some bishops continued to have good relationships with their parishioners but “institutional authority and respect has gone. It’s been a huge revolution, a huge drop in the status of the church.”
The ACP was not a trade union nor a thorn in the side of the church, Hoban said. “We’re loyal to the church, and loyal to Rome and loyal to our beliefs, but we also feel a huge responsibility to say what we think needs to be said at this critical juncture.”
In response to a request for comment, the Irish Catholics Bishops’ Conference forwarded a letter sent by Raymond Browne, the bishop of Kerry, to Hoban in October, which said: “The current challenging situation for the future life and mission of the church in this country requires that all of us work together.”
It added: “Overall, the bishops are committed to working with priests at every level in ensuring that we are all wholeheartedly proclaiming the gospel and serving the people of God.”
Boston Irish Reporter
Ireland’s diocesan priests called ‘a lost tribe’
By BIR News Room, December 29, 2016
The following are excerpts from a story by Sarah Mac Donald that was published in the National Catholic Reporter on Dec. 1, 2016:
The ever-increasing workload of priests in Ireland is threatening to turn an aging, demoralized, and declining group into “sacrament-dispensing machines” who find pastoral work less and less satisfying, a co-founder of Ireland’s Association of Catholic Priests has warned.
In his address to the association’s annual general meeting in Athlone Nov. 16, Fr. Brendan Hoban highlighted how suicide is on the rise among Irish priests, a group he said was also increasingly prone to depression.
With the vast majority of Irish priests now age 70 or over, elderly diocesan priests are living increasingly isolated and lonely lives and are constantly “reminded that we no longer really matter, that at best we’re now little more than a ceremonial presence on the sidelines of life,” he said.
The 68-year-old parish priest said that though “we feel we’ve done our best to carry the good news,” an “avalanche of criticism in the media” meant they were “ritually presented as bad news people, controlling, oppressing, limiting, obsessing.”
More than 150 of the 1,000 priest members that the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) represents heard Hoban explain how the “implosion of our church” in the wake of the abuse scandals had made them realize that they were, in author Fr. Donald Cozzens’ words, “the last priests in Ireland.”
Stark statistics were cited, such as the plight of “two very prestigious dioceses in Ireland, Dublin and Killala,” both of which have just one diocesan priest under 40 years of age. In 20 years’ time, both dioceses will have one or maybe a few priests under age 60 to cover 199 parishes in Dublin and 22 rural parishes spread over a distance in Killala.
Acknowledging that diocesan priesthood in Ireland is “a lost tribe,” Hoban said priests need to find a voice and the courage to name their truth.
“As the last priests in Ireland, we have a right to consideration, acknowledgement, support, encouragement and, above all, respect,” Hoban continued. “Priests who have served the church for so long deserve no less and it’s time to start a reasonable conversation about this.”
He highlighted how many priests are struggling at a pastoral level with issues beyond their training and competence, such as how to minister to parents of same-sex couples who may be upset or confused, how to respond to an invitation to a same-sex marriage of parishioners, and what does pastoral care mean in these situations?
In an interview with national television in Ireland broadcast following the association meeting, Archbishop Charles Brown, the apostolic nuncio to Ireland, spoke about the extent of the falling away of belief among the Irish people. He told Gay Byrne, host of the television program “The Meaning of Life,” that the “fall off in vocations — especially to the priesthood — is a huge challenge.” However, he added, the number of priests working today in Ireland is “almost sufficient for our needs,” although many of these priests, he acknowledged, were in their 70s.
“So, in 10 years we are going to be looking at a completely different situation here,” he said, adding that “it is a big practical problem.”
But he also underlined that globally, since the year 2000, the number of priests around the world is getting bigger every year. “We have more and more and more every year. In Ireland or in France – no. But overall, yes. So, I think we have to recognize one element in this question will be non-Irish priests coming to work in Ireland.”