‘No other profession would ask people to work beyond 75’: Parish priests under ever-increasing workload as vocations drop

Sarah Mac Donald – Irish Independent

The declining fortunes of the Catholic Church in Ireland is making itself felt on its overworked and stretched priests, many of whom are working well beyond retirement age.

According to Fr Brendan Hoban, “the average age of priests in Ireland now is 70+”. In his new book, Holding Out for a Hero, the Co Mayo-based cleric explains that many priests “long for retirement”, but feel guilty about retiring in the difficult circumstances besetting the church and this “can be manipulated to get them to continue past their 75th year”.

It used to be that the demands on a parish priest declined with age because there was a steady stream of curates coming through the ranks who were willing to take up the slack.

Curates are now “an endangered species”, according to Fr Hoban, while year on year, the workload increases for parish priests and they are expected to work harder and longer as they grapple with GDPR and safeguarding protocols, charity law and overseeing finance and pastoral committees, while administering sacraments and pastoral care.

“The effect of our ever-increasing workload is that we morph into sacrament-dispensing machines,” Fr Hoban writes in his new book, which marks his 50 years of priesthood.

The 75-year-old co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) notes that care of priests has become a regular item on the agendas of priests’ councils and in the conversations of priests. “Fifty years ago no one talked about care of priests or priests at risk,” he said. But with few vocations, congregations melting away, collections declining by the year, priests’ morale is “at an all-time low”.

In his recent pastoral letter, “Making Decisions and Preparing for the Future Together”, Bishop Martin Hayes outlined the challenges facing Kilmore diocese. By 2030 there will be only 27 priests ministering in a diocese which currently offers weekend masses in 95 churches. Just one seminarian is preparing for priesthood and more than half of the diocese’s priests are over 70. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to make clerical changes in view of the reduced number of priests,” Bishop Hayes said. One of the diocese’s new initiatives is the appointment of a nurse as a support worker for the care of priests. 

A survey carried out by the ACP last year showed that 547 priests of the 2,100 working priests in the Irish church are aged between 61 and 75 and nearly 300, or 15pc, of working priests are aged 75 or over. 

Fr Tim Hazelwood, parish priest of Killeagh-Inch in Co Cork, said the figures underline how the age profile of Irish priests “is stacked in one direction – towards a very old group of men”. He criticised bishops who asked older priests to continue to work. “I don’t know any other profession that would ask people to work beyond 75,” he said.

According to Fr Hoban, resentment and anger is increasingly obvious in some dioceses. “Recently, in one diocese, a priest retiring at 78 was asked to vacate his house with no prospect of alternative accommodation being provided.”

This, he said, was “scandalous”.

At the ACP’s annual AGM in Athlone last week, priests from all over Ireland gathered to discuss the theme “The Last Priests in Ireland – What is Life Like for Them”. Speakers included Fr Paddy Byrne, parish priest in Abbeyleix, who at 49 was the youngest priest in the room.

He said many of his colleagues are often overwhelmed. A number of priests in Athlone highlighted the demands made on them by their role on the boards of management of Catholic primary schools in their parish.

“Every parish in the country would be trying to sort out the new boards of management which begin on the 1st of December,” Fr Paddy Byrne said. The priest is responsible for the selection of the patron’s nominee and the chairperson of every board.

“This is adding to the stress and burdens on clergy because we’re picking up more and more parishes. I don’t think there is a need in a secular Ireland for the Catholic Church to have as many schools.

“The general consensus is that it is the function of the State to run the schools – not the Catholic Church.”

Asked about the theme of the AGM, Fr Byrne said it was “a little dramatic” but added, “the model that we are operating out of is simply no longer functioning” as evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of clergy in ministry “are well into their 70s or 80s and some are even into their 90s”.

According to Fr Byrne, most priests “are passionate about our priesthood because we love our ministry and we love the blessings that come from the engaging with people. It is a grace-filled thing. It is not a job; it is a way of life”. 

Fr Bernard Cotter is co-parish priest in a “family” of five parishes in the diocese of Cork and Ross, living in the parish of Castlehaven and Myross. Next year he will celebrate 40 years of priesthood. He has spent the last few weeks visiting parishioners inviting them to become part of the parish’s funeral team. “There is a great willingness,” among the laity to step. The “decline in practice and the decline in vocations go together” he said.

Fr Joe Deegan (61) is parish priest of St Brigid’s in Clara and Horseleap on the border of Offaly and Westmeath. At one stage, as the only priest in the parish he covered all the funerals, weddings and masses as well as fulfilling his role on the board of management in four local schools and overseeing sacramental preparation for confirmations, communions and first confession.

Last year Fr Luke Ohiemi from a diocese in Nigeria came on loan to work in the parish. Fr Deegan appreciates this support because he is now also “helping out” in the next parish where the priest is over 75 and has had health issues. While Christmas and Easter are obviously busy times for priests, Fr Deegan said that for many priests, their fatigue relates to the amount of red tape and administration they have to deal with.

“Rules, regulations, policies, procedures and protocols can be a huge burden for some priests because they’re just not good at that.” he said.

“They’re happy to be out with the people in a pastoral way, or administering sacraments and praying and leading ceremonies, but when they sit down at the desk and see all this stuff…priests in Ireland are a very fragile group.”

Bringing in priests from overseas is one of the models being adopted by some dioceses in Ireland to contend with the fall-off in vocations. But this is postponing the inevitable, some priests believe, and the focus should be on preparing the laity to take up parish roles such as on parish finance committees and leading funerals and weddings.

In Fr Deegan’s opinion, the biggest problem for the church is the fall-off in the number of people practicing their faith.

“If we don’t have people practising their faith, then there won’t be the same need for priests.”

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