Shortage of priests is having drastic consequences

In this corner for some time now I’ve been banging on about the problems of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Not least about the problem of the steep decline in the number of priests and its implications in the foreseeable future. Not everyone agrees, which is okay too. Some believe that the tide will turn and we will find ourselves back in the promised land, a place flowing with milk, honey and vocations.
The facts, I’m afraid, are against it. This year just 12 students entered Maynooth to study for the priesthood. None of them is from a western diocese. That must be something of a record. In my first year in Maynooth I was one of 20 students from the western dioceses and there were 84 altogether in my class. In all now there are 64 students in Maynooth studying for the priesthood. In my time the total number of students was around 400.
It’s not a happy picture. And of course the same applies across the developed world: Britain, Germany, Italy, USA. France is even worse, of course, a template of the future. The Church has virtually disappeared in vast areas of rural France as aged priests struggle to cope with a multiplicity of parishes. The future of the Catholic Church in Ireland looks like France, I’m afraid.
Like Great Britain too. A sign of things to come is the decision of the Archdiocese of Liverpool to train lay people to conduct funeral services. Twenty-two lay ‘funeral ministers’, both men and women, have been commissioned officially to lead funeral services where there’s no priest available to say Mass.
The move comes into effect this autumn and is due, predictably enough, to a combination of fewer priests and more funerals. A special leaflet issued by the Liverpool archdiocese explains that a lay minister can lead a prayer vigil before a funeral, as well as a funeral service including the prayers of committal and the prayers at the graveside. In effect everything the priest does except say Mass.
So there it is. All happening in the traditional heartland of English Catholicism. Burying the dead without a Mass or a priest. In three years time, the number of priests in Liverpool diocese will have declined from 170 to 100, according to last week’s Tablet newspaper. Crunch the statistics relating to priest numbers, co-relate them with numbers dying and any diocese in Ireland will surface the same truth. The difference is that we don’t want to talk about it, thank you very much.
According to a report in the Irish Catholic the Irish bishops are drawing up new plans for lay-people to conduct Sunday Communion services. The suggestion is that the bishops will be discussing this at their autumn meeting. The Catholic Press Office has denied the report but this is a subject that will demand the attention of the Church as more-and-more communities are set to be left without a priest for the first time.
It doesn’t really matter, in a way, if the Irish Catholic newspaper has got it wrong. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) Because if the Irish bishops are not discussing these issues then they should be. It isn’t as if  (a) there’s no problem – there is; or (b) we can’t see it – we can; or (c) we don’t know what to do – there are some very obvious suggestions that need to be discussed.
The only suggestion being considered at present is the effort to ‘cluster’ parishes – a necessary strategy to manage the decline of priests while seeking to optimise their effectiveness – and the ordination of married deacons, such ‘solutions’ are short-term and ineffective. And of course everyone knows that ‘clustering’ is just kicking the can down the road.
So what’s going to happen? The trajectory will be something like this. As priests age and die out, lay ministers will hold week-day Communion Services in situations where priests are not available. It will start with Communion Services conducted by laymen and women in parishes where there used to be Mass and now there’s no priest to say it. Gradually this practice will extend to weekend Masses. People will either opt to travel to some more populated centre for Mass or stay in their home parish for a Communion Service. In all probability parishes will not be amalgamated or churches closed – as that would cause a lot of bother – but effectively parishes will become paper entities and churches will become dilapidated and eventually close. And like in Liverpool, a series of specific ministries (like Funeral Ministers) will be introduced to fill in for a declining and aged remnant of priests.
So what are the alternatives. In a few Irish dioceses, deacons are being ordained. They can do everything a priest can do except say Mass, hear Confessions or anoint the sick. The idea is that they will help priests by baptising, receiving funerals, preaching, etc.
I mention them for two reasons: one, their training is being fast-tracked, a number of part-time courses over a few years; and, two, its open to married men. Yet it’s not a lay ministry, like giving out Communion or reading at Mass. It’s an ordained ministry. So why can’t the same apply to ordaining men who have proven, by the lives they lead, their faith and their commitment. Surely we can find in every parish in Ireland at least one such worthy candidate.
Yes, I know there are other options too and no doubt the Church in its wisdom will come to consider them in time. But at the moment we’re not allowed to discuss them.
Don’t mention the war. Don’t mention it. I won’t tell a soul.

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  1. seán eile says:

    If the bishops are not discussing this item at their meeting, what red herrings will they in fact be discussing? Is there something more important?

  2. Gene Carr says:

    I guess the Church needs a miracle.
    God does miracles.
    Doesn’t he?

  3. Sean (Derry) says:

    So, the Catholic Church in Liverpool is introducing lay people to conduct funeral services beginning in autumn. The Archdiocesan statistics for 2007 show a total of 281 priests.
    If a ‘Lay Funeral Minister’ conducts a ‘funeral service’ and thus denies any deceased Catholic a Funeral Mass, I for one will be demanding to know where were the current 200 plus priests and what else were they doing that was so important.
    I suggest that such a move has nothing to do with the current shortage of priests but rather a lazy and easy way out of fulfilling the obligations for a Requiem Mass for the soul of the departed and just a further step towards the Protestantism of the Catholic Church. I wouldn’t be surprised if the growing trend in the false belief that we now all go straight to heaven whilst ignoring or denying the existence of Purgatory has contributed to this down playing of the need for a Requiem Mass.
    Unlike in Ireland, funerals in England quite often take place a couple of weeks after the death and there is therefore much greater flexibility for making suitable funeral arrangements that could include a priest. Are there no Sunday masses or weekday masses in Liverpool anymore or is Liverpool expecting an outbreak of bubonic plague that will make it impossible to properly bury the great number of dead?

  4. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Sean(Derry), are you sure you’re not jumping headlong to a bunch of unfounded conclusions? – and no, I’m not talking about the Four Last Things.
    But you may be right. Archbishop Patrick Kelly has a bunch of lazy skivers (at least 90 of them, I reckon) who were ordained between 1941 and, like himself, 1962. He’s even paying for some of these latchicoes to swing the lead in holiday homes and nursing homes around Ireland. (Well, Liverpool is our second capital after all.) These freeloaders range from a sprightly 75 to probably not more than 97. They can’t all have been late vocations, for God’s sake. Every last one of them could be churning out requiem masses, in Latin even, and sprinkling holy water in the churches and graveyards of Liverpool, Birkenhead and Bootle every week of the year. I’m sure they’re just dying to be asked, or just dying.
    Of course the Catholics of Liverpool are a damned awkward crew. Most parishes have no more than 120-150 of them looking for funerals every year. But do you think they’d bother to queue up in an orderly manner, one of them every two or three days? In civilised parishes they’d space it out nicely, avoiding Christmas, the three days around the Grand National and the priest’s holidays. But Ab Kelly writes, “I remember our episcopal vicar telling me that one time at Christmas he had to celebrate 13 funerals in seven days and he felt so overwhelmed he said to me, ‘If the phone rings again and it’s another funeral, I’ll burst into tears.'” I’m sure if the vicar was a Liverpool lad he’d have put it a bit stronger than that but archbishops are probably trained to be polite when writing in The Tablet.
    You know, Sean, some people might think that Archbishop Kelly is just prudently preparing for the future he sees staring the archdiocese in the face and that every bishop in Ireland should be at least discussing similar arrangements for a future sacerdotal famine, even if we escape the bubonic plague. But maybe you’re right. Kelly is one of these chaps who happened to be seminarians in Rome when John XXIII was elected. He had a conciliar diet for breakfast, lunch and dinner till he left for home in 1964. Now at 75 he’s probably demob happy and having a last hurrah. Anything goes. Still, read the article he wrote, though I think you’ll find The Tablet’s probably more on your side than on Kelly’s.

  5. Sean (Derry) says:

    Liverpool is hardly the Great Australian Outback or some South American rain forest so even if there were only a dozen priests in Liverpool (not in a nursing home) I still don’t see how it would not be possible to arrange for funeral masses to coincide with priests daily masses. It’s not that the priests are expected to actually dig the graves and personally carry the coffin in and out of the church.
    I wonder if these newly appointed ‘Lay Funeral Ministers’ are expected to be ‘Extraordinary’ Lay Funeral Ministers, but I guess even if they are it will not be long before they too descend in swarms in a similar way that ‘Extraordinary’ Ministers of the Eucharist tend to do regardless of the numbers receiving communion. It now seems that the definition of the word ‘extraordinary’ has the same meaning as the word ‘ordinary’. In fact it would be quite extraordinary not to see a few ‘extraordinary’ Ministers of the Eucharist at just about every mass.
    BTW I read Liverpool also has 100 Deacons but why bother using them in a crisis when we can send someone on a weekend training course to become a ‘Lay Funeral Minister.’

  6. What would be the causes that young people don’t choose priesthood? I also wonder how many parents would be happy to know that their son wishes to pursue priesthood.

  7. Sean (Derry) – I agree that the deacons might solve some of the problem. There are many cases in which a family might want to have an ordained minister conduct a funeral service but in which, because they are not regular churchgoers, there could be some awkwardness about having a Mass. The same applies with much greater force to weddings.
    Eddie – Sorry to sound like a boundary geek, but Birkenhead is not in the Liverpool diocese! South of the Mersey you are in Shrewsbury.

  8. Eddie Finnegan says:

    LP, indeed you’re right. Now why didn’t I know that when I have an old classmate priesting in Shrewsbury? And he’s still doing funerals and requiem Masses!

  9. Sean (Derry) says:

    LP, I have read the diocesan leaflet (a single page), called Planning a Catholic Funeral, and I am not sure if you are making the same point as the leaflet when you say ‘because they are not regular churchgoers, there could be some awkwardness about having a Mass’ (I’m not sure if you are referring to the deceased not being a churchgoer or his family). The diocesan leaflet (page) says ‘..but if the majority of the mourners would not be able to participate fully in a Mass, ..’ a funeral service may be led by a Lay Funeral Minister.
    I might be missing something but surely the deciding factor as to whether or not the soul of the deceased is deserving of a Funeral Mass should not be based on the strength of the Catholic faith of his or her family and friends. I always thought the main point of a requiem mass was for the concern of the deceased’s soul and that the power of the mass offered was not dependent upon the beliefs (or lack of) of the mourners.
    BTW other than a link to the actual diocesan leaflet (page) I have found it very difficult to find any thoughts or opinions on this matter from any priests (or the Archbishop) in Liverpool or anywhere else for that matter. It seems that other than the mention in The Tablet, nobody else knows anything about this secretive band of Twenty-two lay ‘funeral ministers’, both men and women, who have been commissioned officially to lead funeral services where there’s no priest available to say Mass.
    However whether true or not I would still hold similar views on masses being replaced with lay-people conducting Communion services. “Don’t mention the war”? The war is certainly on ok but it is between God’s Catholic Church and the devil. I may be cheating but I took a look at the end of ‘the book’ and the good news for everyone is that God wins.
    I say, put your trust firmly in God and his priests. It is only when we lack faith, hope and trust in God to provide us with more good priests and strengthen the priests we currently have, that we fail and have to start looking for the man-made solutions of using lay-people as pseudo-priests.

  10. Association of Catholic Priests says:

    This comment came in from Teresa Mee
    Brendan, you say ‘if the Irish bishops are not discussing (Sunday Communion services), then they should be.’
    But it’s not primarily the bishops but we pew occupants about to be deprived of Sunday Mass who should start engaging in creative discussion and planning. We haven’t got around to it yet; our fault.
    You say, ‘…a few deacons are being ordained…’ But what are those few among so many? Besides, what can a deacon (whose training has been fast tracked) do that a Pastoral Worker or other well prepared member of the Church cannot do? Some members might even be capable of proclaiming the Word of God rather than just doing the reading in the Sunday Celebration, and some might even be equipped to lead communal reflection on the Word /dialogue homily.
    And what may a deacon do that a married priest is not allowed do? To misquote St Paul, ‘There are many gifts, but the greatest of these is celibacy’.
    Lastly, looking ahead, I’m worried about the deacon whose wife dies leaving him with young children to rear – on his own! He’s not allowed to marry again. Where does that leave the welfare of a child in relation to Church law? Now there’s the rub.

  11. Very, very, interesting. There was a priest in Canada, and I imagine he was well known. He has gone on to be with our Lord. His name was Father Bernard Lonergan. To say that he was an intellectual, is an understatement, but His work is perhaps well known and very applicable here. His work was called “Insight”. In this “work”, he tells us how to arrive at “insight” or I would say, some kind of “wisdom”. First, we must accurately, reflect on and analyze our experience or situation. However, a very important qualification for this first step is: We must be prepared to know what our “assumptions are” and be willing to question them, be willing to suspend their accepted correctness, so that we might well be very open to many possibilities. I think, they call it, making ourselves able to “think outside the box”. We have to be willing to question so much of our previous theological presumptions, especially, those that were formulated by Thomas Acquinas. Shh!, You didn’t hear me say it! I don’t really think, “theologically or spiritually” we have a priest shortage, or that we would be without eucharist, but we have to be willing to question and let go. I will say again, that God reserves the right to build up and to tear down. God and the Holy Spirit will reveal to us what is to be done, but we must be open.
    As the Irish say, “May the Road Rise Up To Meet You” and it will, even in matters of faith and the practise of it. I think, there can be many short term solutions to the “shortage”, but what we require is “new thinking” and “new theological understanding”. Maybe “space” isn’t the new frontier, especially for us Catholics, but the new frontier, is “new thinking” which comes from “new wine”.

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