Sarah Mac Donald
A quarter of all priests currently serving in the Irish church are set to retire over the next 15 years according to the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP).
The figure was revealed at the association’s annual general meeting in Athlone where priests from around the country were told that 547 priests of the 2,100 priests currently working in the Irish church are aged between 61 and 75 and nearly 300, or 15pc, of working priests are aged 75 or over.
They serve in 1,355 parishes and 2,652 churches or mass centres.
Speaking to the Irish Independent, Fr Tim Hazelwood, parish priest of Killeagh-Inch in Co Cork, said the figures show how the age profile of Irish priests “is stacked in one direction – towards a very old group of men” and that the current model of church is “not sustainable”.
“The model that we worked from in the past is still being upheld,” he said.
Criticising the bishops for “asking older men to continue to work”, he added: “I don’t know any other profession that would ask people to work beyond 75.”
The ACP survey of priests is the first such survey of clerical numbers in the Irish church. According to Liamy Mac Nally, administrative secretary of the ACP, it is not a scientific survey but a “snapshot”.
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He told the Irish Independent that the bishops have all the information on priest numbers, and he called on them to collate it and “give us a baseline for clerical numbers to help people understand the reality of the situation in the church as it undertakes its synodal journey”.
The ACP survey revealed that across all 26 Irish dioceses just 52 priests or less than 2.5pc of working priests are younger than 40 and there are just 47 seminarians in Maynooth.
The figures also reveal that a total of 45 priests are out of ministry and that there are 464 working priests aged between 40 and 60. Almost 9pc or 190 working priests are from outside the diocese they work in, most of these are from abroad.
According to Fr Hazelwood, the cohort of priests aged between 61 and 75 is an indicator of the number who will be retiring over the next few years.
“If these priests are no longer working, who will do the work? We know it is going to happen, so we need things to change now.
“The signs are all around us. I was on retreat lately with 16 priests. I was the youngest – I am 64,” he said.
However, he said some dioceses have not yet acknowledged the reality of the situation.
“In those dioceses it is about filling gaps and getting older men to look after more masses and placing bigger expectations on them.” This, he said, was “disturbing”.
While some priests prefer to continue in ministry past the age of 75, he said this placed an expectation on others to do the same.
“In most dioceses, when a priest reaches 75, they can retire. But there are a few dioceses where this is not the case, and it is in these dioceses that the majority of those over 75 who are still working are based.”
The Irish Independent understands that the Archdiocese of Dublin has over 60 priests aged 75 or older still working full-time or part-time, while the Diocese of Raphoe has 45 and the Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly has 21.
Fr Hazelwood said the ACP’s concern stemmed from the fact that “at a certain stage your health, mobility and ability to take on responsibility weakens. There is a time in everybody’s life that they should be able to step back a little bit and take it easier”.
He said many priests who would like to continue in ministry feel bogged down by all the administration that continues to land on the parish priest’s desk, from finance to child protection to dealing with building insurance.