Ireland’s priests will have almost disappeared in 20 years. What then?

When Irish priests have disappeared, Who Will Break The Bread For Us?
Denial is a fact of life. When those we love are seriously ill, we want to
deny the painful prospects ahead of us. When institutions we’ve given our
lives to are in crisis we often pretend otherwise. Human kind, the poet T.S.
Eliot famously wrote, cannot bear much reality. When we try to pretend that
everything is just as it used to be, that nothing has gone wrong, we do what
the orchestra on the Titanic did, we keep playing, we pretend that
everything is normal. That’s what denial is.
The Catholic Church in Ireland is in denial about vocations to the
priesthood. We’re pretending that there’s no crisis. Or that the crisis is
not as bad as it seems. Or that things could be worse than they are. Or that
we can’t really know what God has in store for us. Or whatever.
Let’s look at some numbers.
• In Killala diocese, for 22 parishes, there are now 7 priests under 55
years of age. Spool on for two decades and there will be 7 (or thereabouts)
under 75.
• In Tuam diocese in 2020 (that’s just 7 years time) there will be 50
priests for 55 parishes and ten years on from that, in 2030, there will be
just 30 Tuam priests, most of them elderly.
• In 1984 there were 171 ordinations or religious professions in Ireland; in
2006 there were 22.
• In 1990 there were 525 students studying for the diocesan priesthood in
Ireland; in 2013 there are 70.
• In 1966, when I went to Maynooth, there were 84 in my class; this year 12
went to Maynooth.
• In 1966, of the 84 who went to Maynooth, 20 were from the western
dioceses; of the 12 in first year in Maynooth none is from the west.
So we don’t need to have 20/20 vision to see this particular train coming
down the track. All we need to do is to be able to count. And to accept what
the very dogs in the street already know is happening – Ireland’s priests
will have virtually disappeared in 20 years.
My new book, Who Will Break The Bread For Us? Disappearing Priests, names
this reality. It examines in detail the solutions on offer and proposes that
we have a narrow window of opportunity to take the radical decisions that
need to be taken if Ireland is not to become a Eucharistic desert, if our
parishes are not to become priest-less and Mass-less communities. Because
without priests we have no Mass and without Mass we have no Church.
For the first time in many, many centuries in Ireland we are facing the
collapse of a scaffolding of worship that was sustained even during Penal
and famine times. And it’s as if, as a Church, we are walking blind-folded
towards a precipice because unlike other fundamental questions we need to
ask ourselves as a Church, Who will break the bread for us? can’t be
obscured in a fog of waffle and distraction. For the simple reason that the
issue of priest-vocations is now embarrassingly quantifiable.
Solutions offered to the vocations’ crisis include : clustering of parishes
(this is at best a short-term management strategy); ordaining married
deacons (but they can’t say Mass); importing priests from Africa (but there
will be huge language and cultural problems); extending the retirement age
for priests (it’s already at 70 and 75 and is both unfair and exploitative);
replacing Mass with Communion services (which will divide and fracture
faith-communities); praying for vocations (is God in not answering our
prayers suggesting to us that the solution may be in our own hands?).
So what can we do?
We could ordain as priests married deacons who already work in parishes –
there are few enough in Ireland at present but there are 16,921 in the USA.
We could ordain married men of proven faith in our parishes – their
education and formation could be fast-tracked, as is the case with deacons.
We could invite priests who left to get married to return, even in a
part-time capacity – there are thousands of them in Ireland, including seven in
one Mayo parish. We could institute a married clergy, alongside a celibate
clergy – already married priests (who have come over from the Church of
England) are working in parishes all over Great Britain.
Recently Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin suggested that there were
vocations out there if we could access them: ‘For the moment, what we have
to do is find worthy candidates who are able to live as celibate priests as
is the tradition in the Latin rite. I believe that there are candidates
there but we are not always necessarily reaching them’.
The key phrase here is ‘for the moment.’ Wriggle-room is what it’s called.
And I suspect, I have to say, that Archbishop Martin knows that the game is
up for the Irish Church if all we can muster is yet another search for
putative celibate priests in the tradition in the Latin rite. That
particular t-shirt is well-faded. Been there and done that.
The reality is that in 20 years there will be few priests in Ireland and
those that are still standing will be mainly in their 70s. So there is an
inevitable logic with asking the question, Who will break the bread for us?,
that points up the futility of short-term, sticking-plaster solutions and I
examine it in this book.
In Who Will Break The Bread For Us? I say my piece about the crisis in
vocations to the priesthood in this book. Not everyone will agree with my
prognosis or indeed with my assessment of ‘the darkness at the heart of
priesthood’ or my direct suggestions about decisions that need to be made.
But if, as I believe, we are sleep-walking towards a precipice, we need to
consider where we’re going and how long we have to avoid the disaster for
our Church that looms ahead of us. We need at least to start a real
conversation about where we are and what we can do. It’s my hope that this
book will help to kick-start that conversation.
Or at least call a halt to whatever equivalent of that orchestra on the
Titanic playing on regardless that is offered to distract us from what’s
happening in the Irish Catholic Church. No matter how understandable denial
may be, we can’t afford it anymore.
Who Will Break The Bread For Us? Disappearing Priests may be purchased on this website. (See on right.)

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  1. Jan Hus a Roman Catholic priest from Prague was burned at the stake as a heretic by the Council of Constance (approx. 100 years before Luther) He was a student of scripture and taught that there was no scriptural basis for purgatory and that its root cause was simony. He taught that as far as true presence is concerned, Jesus said when 2 or more are gathered in my name I will be present. He taught that priests were not magicians, were not shamans, did not utter magical intonations. The priest had nothing to do with transubstantiation – that occurred when the bread and wine was consumed by the communicant and that the faith of the communicant and the Holy Spirit changed it into the body and blood of Christ. If you did not have faith then nothing happened. Priests he taught were mere servants to distribute the bread and wine. As far as state of grace and necessary confession, he pointed out that Jesus distributed the bread and wine to Judas. Perhaps the priesthood as we know it will disappear along with clericalism. The People of God will just have to trust the Holy Spirit.

  2. Your analysis is starkly true, I’m afraid, and it applies to the UK (and I’m sure all other European countries, no doubt). To me, the solution is simple. In any group, and the Church is no exception, leaders naturally emerge. These are the men (and women?) the Church should be inviting (or giving the “vocation”) to accept this leadership, and so be the breakers of bread for their communities. A basic level of training, then the laying on of hands, or ordination, in other words. Celibacy has nothing to do with the process. The idea that the position of “elder” be given to celibate young men who like the infant Samuel heard a call in the night is bizarre.
    The Church authorities have to realise that their obligation to ensure that God’s family (“feed my sheep”) is not deprived of the Eucharist is grave indeed, and if it is not met, then they will one day be answerable before God.
    This, I think, is the main answer, though there is a place for the idea of inviting laicised priests (such as myself) to resume ministry in some capacity as married men as an immediate solution.

  3. ‘Not everyone will agree with my prognosis or indeed with my assessment of ‘the darkness at the heart of priesthood’ or my direct suggestions about decisions that need to be made.
    Brendan, I agree with all, but only for ‘Now’.
    ‘we need to consider where we’re going’
    Where we’re going/making for is a fixed ultimate Goal. The means are variable, functional, not absolutes but they must be relevant to the absolute Goal, the establishment of the reign of God on earth.
    ‘But if, as I believe, we are sleep-walking towards a precipice, and how long we have to avoid the disaster…’
    Is it a disaster or is it a phenomenon alerting us to a paradigm shift in global society? Are all the structures, including priesthood, absolutes?
    ‘We need at least to start a real conversation about where we are and what we can do. It’s my hope that this book will help to kick-start that conversation’.
    Couldn’t agree with you more. The players are ready on this site , waiting for the kick-off. Bring on the rest with Who Will Break The Bread For Us? Disappearing Priests.

  4. Eddie Finnegan says:

    I suppose, through priestly absence (or is it abstinence?), we are modelling the immediate future here on the ACP website. Not so much a Eucharistic desert or a Mass-less community – but certainly a virtually priest-less virtual parish. Not by Bread alone do priests, people and God commune.

  5. Des Gilroy says:

    Brendan, Thank you for writing this book and bringing this crucial issue into this particular forum. Regrettably, the hierarchy seem to have their heads in the sand when it comes to planning for the future of our Church and, given the age profile of our priests at the moment, this is a problem which needs immediate attention.
    Firstly, they have to realise that this is an issue for all of us – hierarchy, clergy and flock. Secondly, that it will not be resolved without a realistic plan and that all parties must be involved in seeking the correct range of solutions. That means a national Church forum in which bishops, clergy and lay representatives, male and female, have open and frank discussions about the problem and agree a positive way forward.
    I can see this being a major topic at the ACI AGM in the Clarion Hotel, Liffey Valley this Saturday, June 1.

  6. Mary O Vallely says:

    The trouble is that when you go beyond anger and into weariness that weariness drains the lifeblood out of a soul and what comes across seems like a “don’t care” attitude. (Thinking of Eddie’s query as to why so few priests post on this forum.) It’s the same with many lay people. Offer them a chance to join a parish group and years of deep indoctrination in patriarchy, deference and clericalism has sucked the energy and the desire to contribute out of them altogether. “What’s the point- ism” reigns supreme.
    Teresa is right. We need to think outside the clerical box and did I hear Brendan Hoban mention that terrifying prospect, women in the priesthood? Don’t think I did.
    BTW I don’t believe that the orchestra of The Titanic was “in denial.” Anything but, as they played “Nearer my God to Thee” to reassure themselves and the other passengers that there was indeed hope, hope of a life beyond. The nobility of their act still brings a lump to my overly sentimental throat.
    Here in Armagh there is no shortage of young priests. They’re everywhere I look, popping up regularly on Facebook,organising Youth tea parties and beaming with enthusiasm. 🙂 However I do understand Killala’s frustration but until it hits home to Ara Coeli there’ll be no panic yet.
    There ARE obvious solutions but we need to talk about what priesthood is and could/should be, not just what it WAS.
    I hope to see Brendan’s book(s)for sale on Saturday in The Clarion Liffey Hotel. I love his passion and his energy. Keep writing, Brendan, but we do need so much more discussion. Any priests out there who would like to share their thoughts and experiences?? Please share and help us understand.

  7. If I should have been so lucky as to be able to peer into the future, I would suggest that the theological equation of: no priest = no Eucharist = no church…is probably no where near grounded in Divine Truth…

  8. Soline Humbert says:

    Like Mary @6 I had noticed the absence of the W word…But then I had never thought of people like myself as a “terrifying prospect!”
    By the way,a lot of us catholic women,and married men, have been breaking bread for decades. Change always starts from the ground up…What we need is enough imagination and courage to respond to the promptings of the Spirit and open ourselves to receive from our most generous ,faithful God.That’s the only shortage we are suffering from!Corpus Christi blessings of joyful hope to all.

  9. I’m not so sure that the bishops lifting their heads out of the sand would make that much difference. What’s desperately needed before entering on any planning process, is vision and creative thinking. I would agree with Des (@5) that this is an issue for all of us. Is it change that’s called for, or transformation? We need to elaborate a vision for the Church in Ireland. I like Mary V’s (@6) reference to hope. Maybe we need to think ‘challenge’ rather than ‘problem’.

  10. One recalls the verdict of the great Bernard Haring: ‘The people of God have a God-given right to the Eucharist. On the basis of human law [mandatory celibacy], to deprive the people of God of the Eucharist is, objectively, gravely sinful.’ That was fifty years ago. It is high time for the people of God to claim their God-given right.

  11. Breaking of Bread : A continuance of the joyless ritual that can be found in most Catholic churches any Sunday? Maybe without priests (and bishops) people will feel free to meet with their neighbours, to read the Word of God, to praise God, to listen to each other and to pray for and minister to each other.

  12. Fr Brendan should be congratulated on his courage in speaking out the truth for all to hear. But will we listen? As Church we are indeed walking blind fold, not just into a crisis, we are already there. Here in England a recent survey found that nearly half of our priests are 70 years of age or over.
    Many priests seen to feel unable (or are afraid) to speak out. We, the laity, are suffering from years of ‘being kept in our place’ and do not now feel empowered to speak out. The internet is our God given tool to put that right. Let’s use it and encourage others to do so.
    You could start by signing the petition
    I know that many of you have already done so, but we need millions to impress the Vatican!

  13. Maureeen Mulvaney says:

    Brendan, I have read your summary of your book and looking forward to reading it. My quick response to “Ireland’s disappearing priests” in 20 years is, is that a terrible and terrifying thing to happen at this time? Years ago when we had no shortage of priests, we left it to them and we became a passive laity. Thankfully, today we have taken our place as baptized persons and, as a result we can see the Spirit moving in all the groups who are looking for change/renewal in our Church that is really needed today.
    Sometimes outdated laws and practices must disappear in order for a new Spring to grow.
    “So what can we do?” You listed many worthwhile areas to look at. Just to take one of these, ordaining married deacons, isn’t that continuing the all mail priesthood again? I agree if women were included as deacons here too. Maybe if we look closely, we can see women highly qualified with degrees in Theology, Pastoral Ministry etc. who financed these studies themselves through the years.
    Brendan, I enjoy reading all your challenging and interesting writings. So when I read your book “Who Will Break the Bread? I will see that women are included, as they too are very capable to BREAK BREAD! Keep up the good work, Brendan and keep writing!

  14. Maureeen Mulvaney says:

    Following on from #13 , I have just read an article in this week’s Irish Catholic, “Picturing a truly inclusive Church” page 4. A group of parishioners in the North of Ireland have come together to discuss issues, such as “Women in the Church”

  15. Tis another flicker of light, Maureen…The link to the article you speak of is: http://www.irishcatholic.ie/20130530/news/towards-a-complementary-church-S33784
    I’m wondering if Father DeClargy, Nuala O’Loan, and Joanna Bogle are familiar with the ACP website or the ACI. I wonder if they know that the ACI have met in Dublin today…
    I read this article and it gives significant detail about who said what….The meeting took place in Ballymena, where 90 women gathered to talk about the ordained diaconate for women. However, there were some powerful statements made regarding how the role of women in the Church needs to change.
    As well, they might like to know that there is pressure in the German Church to allow for a diaconate for women that doesn’t flow from ordination, but, from, baptism, and the call to more fully live from our Royal Priesthood. I enjoyed this remark: “The Church has to change with the times and give women their place which is not just making the tea.” It was great to know, that the discussion about women continues, in spite of……

  16. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Darlene, I see you’re practising your Ballymena accent already. True, “Father DeClargy” would be a great name for a Parish Priest if he had the luxury of several Curates to boss and order around. Alas, Fr Paddy Delargy probably doesn’t. Both he and Nuala O’Loan know much more about the ACP than do any reporters for “”The Irish Catholic”” – a title best placed within doubly inverted commas /quotes.
    As for the remark about “making the tea”, it’s nearly 26 years since Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, after telling his fellow cardinals and bishops in the 1987 Synod on the Laity it was time to arouse the sleeping giant and that they couldn’t go on regarding feminism as “an American aberration”, concluded: “Finally, whenever we appoint women to ecclesiastical posts in the future, let us appoint them, when qualified, to the same types of work as men – teaching of theology, directors of retreats, members of Roman Congregations and so on, instead of confining their work to making the tea, sweeping the floor and arranging the flowers.”
    Tragedy is that, twenty-three years after the death of a cardinal who knew what he was talking about and who wasn’t backward about putting it forward, Ireland has chinless wonders in the guise of papal nuncios traipsing the country appointing other equally chinless wonders in their own image and likeness as future cardinal primates whose view of the role of the laity, men or women, seems to be nothing more than to kneel in perpetual adoration – preferably of all primates and papal nuncios. Oh well, another 23 years of this and nobody will be very interested in who or what ascends to Ara Coeli – the Altar of heaven.

  17. The Church has to change with the times! Seriously???
    If the Church has to change with the times then what is Her relevance? What challenge does the Gospel present? Why would anyone listen to Her message? And ultimately, why does She exist, if ‘the times’ dictates our salvation?!
    If the Church changes with the times, then it is the spirit of the world that animates and governs the Church and not the Holy Spirit sent on Pentecost.
    If the Church changes with the times, should we reject belief in God? ‘The times’ tells us that only that which can be measured, quantified or observed with the senses can be real.
    If the Church moves with the times, then do we reject the Gospel if something ‘the times’ tells us is true, conflicts with it?
    Pride is the root cause of all modernist errors; we know best, it is our Church, we are church, therefore we decide the terms on which it operates and ultimately how God operates.

  18. Caoimhin Ui Niall says:

    I am working with a network of clergy, Protestant and Catholic, called Not in Our Name (NoN) who are seeking a common ground to reform the church and make it comply with the commands of God and common law, concerning the crimes committed under its authority. I hope we can discuss these matters and find a way for the catholic church in Ireland to achieve autonomy from Rome and the corporate machinations that betray our faith and Christ. We are gathering at a small NoN conference in September in Dublin. Please contact us if you would like to participate, at the thecommonland@gmail.com. Blessings, Caoimhin (congregational clergyman)

  19. Colm Holmes says:

    The shortage of priests can be solved by:
    1. Ordaining women as priests
    2. Optional celibacy
    3. Welcoming back the many priests who left to get married

  20. I am truly shattered by Brendan’s excellent analysis of what our church will be like in 20 years time. From a selfish point of view, it will probably not worry me, but what about our children and those who will come after us. The solutions to the shortage of Priests, as Brendan suggests, are all practical, and I would also add that women must be admitted to the ordained ministry. I have never accepted that God only wanted men as priests. If things remain as they are, in 20 years, we will have few priests, in 30 years we will have no church.
    I wonder if the opinion of one small group of people who occasionally contribute to this website, could be made known on this subject. I refer of course to the “No Surrender “group, who are totally happy with all aspects of our church. Those who insult the “Reformers” by calling us grumblers, and advising us of the many churches we should join. Is Brendan talking through his hat, or is there some substance to his thinking. Surly your point of view should be made known. Who knows, there may be converts to your way of thinking, if we knew what it was.

  21. Thank you Eddie for correcting my spelling again. I can always count on you for that. I thought his name looked at little too French! There’s a Ballymena accent too? I fear, the Rosetta Stone will not be much help! Thank you for the information regarding the Irish Cardinal. Yes, it would appear he was a progressive cleric and incredibly honest!

  22. Maureeen Mulvaney says:

    Tony @ #12. I clicked into your link: marriedpriestspetition.org. The final point made in it is “what does it say about the Sacrament of Marriage….? My question is, “What is it saying about women?” If a single man is ordained deacon, he can not get married and if he’s married and becomes deacon, should his wife die, he can not re- marry! Icould go on and on, the list is endless! What can we , as women do to impress the Vatican??

  23. Stephen Edward says:

    You say that African priests can’t fill the gap because of language and cultural differences! Care to be more specific? An obvious solution is just kicked into touch without any clarification at all. When Irish priests served in Africa it seemed to have worked and the fact that there is a surfeit of African priests now appears to prove it. I have an Indian parish priest who does his job very well indeed and no-one I know appears to have experienced any difficulty arising from ‘language or cultural differences’.

  24. I greatly salute your courage and effort here. I thank you for being generous with your findings and views. This is one of the most honest approaches so far as far as the problem in the Irish catholic church is concerned. I sympathize with the Irish church. I think that in as much as the future there looks quite gloomy it is yet redeemable. However, this has to be only if we act on time. My opinion therefore is that since there appears to be no more vocations in Ireland, then there should be a radical avocation drive. This should not only be within Ireland, but it should be extended to all other catholic countries. This is why the church is One and Universal, when one part is sick the whole becomes concerned. This also means waking up to the reality of the fact that the Ireland needs complete re-evangelization as Pope John Paul II of blessed memory once said of Europe at large. This is the problem and project of the entire Catholic Church. The Irish church is too dear to the Universal church that we can not afford to sit down and watch it go down the drain. For us to succeed in this we must “begin to look for the dark sheep while there is still day light, because once darkness comes we certainly may not be able to find it”. It is a difficult but not an impossible task. May God bless all the frantic efforts towards awakening the church in Ireland. Peace be with you all!

  25. Noirin Lynch says:

    I’m struck by the fact that I didn’t see any reference to the disappearing laity (apologies if i missed it). Its not just clergy that are aging – our definition of young people in the church is almost comically moving upwards all the time. In fact i’d say that the current Irish catholic church is primarily made up of and led by people born before 1955. And so the disappearing number of clergy isn’t a problem – as statistically, Catholicism will probably die among lay people at the same time. To be crude: will anyone miss the fact that there’s no Mass!?!
    This is not a numbers game to be solved – contrary to popular opinion, we have and will survive with tiny numbers of clergy, and if necessary with none. The issue for Ireland is not ‘what will we do without priests’, but ‘who will we be without catholicism’. And, I suggest, the issue for those of us remaining ‘in’ church is not ‘how do we re-organise or get more priests’, but ‘what is happening in our communities that we are not generating a future’.
    We may survive without priests, but what we will not survive without is a relationship with God. And that, I suggest, may be more at the heart of this dilemma than we are willing to admit or be responsible for.
    Too many of us fear admitting our own dark night of the soul. We plough along with ‘survival’, blocking the thought that maybe we made the wrong choices, maybe all we can do is see this thing out.
    And that’s precisely why we are not attractive to those searching for healthy, healing, happy spirituality.
    The promise we have is of Gods eternal presence and love.
    Clergy, and even our beloved Eucharist, is not exclusive evidence of that – humanity and love is.
    Why are we not generating a future? What future does God want for this people and this place and this time? What are we cooperating with, what are we blocking? …

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