The Irish Church refuses to face statistics on priesthood

Twenty young men entered Maynooth College this September to study for the
diocesan priesthood. That’s up on last year (from 12) but no one is
pretending that the increase matters all that much. With an attrition rate
of 40-plus percent we can expect that less than 12 from that number will eventually
be ordained in 2020 for the 26 dioceses of Ireland.
No one (or almost no one) is denying the present situation and the looming
crisis. I wrote a book about it earlier in the year (Who will break the
bread for us?) so I’ve crunched the figures and studied it in some depth.
The bottom line is that within 20 years a tiny cadre of aged priests
will be struggling to say Masses in a tiny complement of churches. When they
pass on there will effectively be no priests left in Ireland.
A few statistics. There are seven priests in Killala diocese under 55 years of
age. In Tuam diocese, by 2020, there will be just 30 priests for 55
parishes. And this year (2013) just one student has come forward to study
for the priesthood for Dublin diocese, which at present has over over million
Catholics. In 1990 there were 525 studying in Ireland for the diocesan
priesthood – now the figure is around 70.
Disturbingly, part of the problem is that the Irish Church is refusing to
recognise the mathematical imperative of the available statistics.
Two reactions are evident. One, a vague hope that maybe, please God, things
will change and you’d never know what might happen. God is good. This is a
strategy (if it could call it that) that leads towards accepting almost
anyone for priesthood – as long as they are able to stand up and say Mass.
Experience should tell us that this is a dangerous approach, and can lead to
more problems that mere numbers can solve. Pope Francis, one of many, warns
us against it. In Buenos Aires he only accepted about 40 per cent of those who
applied to enter the seminary in his diocese.
The second reaction is to argue that we’re not trying hard enough to attract
vocations and we need to get back to the tried and tested ways of
encouraging vocations: there’s no crisis because God is still calling
people; we’re not praying enough; we’re not putting enough resources into
the effort, say employing full-time vocations directors; we’re too
pessimistic in our approach.
Gerard Dunne, who’s a vocations director for the Dominican Order, encourages
the latter approach and has recently written a letter to the Irish bishops
ticking them off for their presumed failures in this area. When some
bishops, he writes, speak about vocations their words can have a very
negative impact and create uncertainty in the minds of potential candidates.
Dunne hits another predictable button. So often now priests don’t seem to
radiate joy ‘because of their calling to follow the Lord’. Where there is a
distinct lack of joy in the living out of priesthood, he suggests, it puts
possible candidates off. As does, he suggests, organisations and
associations of Catholic priests and religious who appear to portray
negative images of vocation to priesthood and religious life.
However, the more difficult truth is that dusting off the old strategies for
encouraging vocations or pushing them though a veneer of modern technology
are not solutions to the crisis because the crisis – and anyone who can add
can see there is a crisis – is more fundamental than people like Gerard
Dunne admit.
The clear, unvarnished truth is that very few young men are now prepared to
become priests and very few parents are prepared to support them if they
want to go that road. The lives priests lead, including what is perceived as
the unnatural and unhealthy isolation of diocesan priests, demand a level of
psychological and emotional maturity that few people actually achieve.
Pretending otherwise is to fly in the face of the prevailing evidence and
convinces only the naive and the pious.
We need to be real about priesthood. And we need to place that reality full
square before prospective candidates for priesthood. To do otherwise would
be manipulative and, worse still, unjust. It’s unacceptable that we should
somehow sell the priesthood to reluctant candidates by pretending that it’s
something other than it is. It’s irresponsible to draw people into
priesthood or the religious life through bombarding them with perceptions
that are at variance with the truth.
The reality is that priesthood is a difficult and demanding life that needs
a significant level of competence and emotional maturity and pretending
otherwise is counter-productive, dangerous and naive. And all the smiles or
positive vibes emanating from ‘happy’ priests won’t change that reality.
Pretending that it would is flying in the face of experience.
No matter how many full-time vocations directors we have, no matter how we
wrap it up in modern technology, no matter how we present ourselves as
happy-clappy priests, no matter how we pray for vocations, all the available
evidence suggests that we need to look more fundamentally at priesthood, at
a new and re-imaging of priesthood for a very different world rather than
simply pressing all the old buttons. Naive enthusiasm about absolute
certainties and unreal expectations does not pay its dues either to the
world we live in or the demands of a priest’s life. Simple solutions to
complex problems never really deliver. Pretending that this issue is simple
and straight-forward is no service to priesthood or to Church. ‘Confusion’
Brian Friel once wrote, ‘need not be an ignoble condition’.
So what can be done? In my book, Who will break the bread for us? I examine
what purchase there might be in some of the solutions offered:  married
deacons, importing priests from Africa, extending the retirement age for
priests, praying for vocations, substituting Communion Services for Masses.
And I’ve suggested that we need to take a more fundamental look at
priesthood if we want to sustain the scaffolding of faith-communities built
up over the centuries and which, without priests, will crumble very quickly.
We have a small window of opportunity – two decades, at most – to find some
‘real’ solutions. We need to do something more fundamental than setting up
another web-site. This is one problem modern technology or pressing old
buttons won’t solve.
The difficulty we have about vocations is that those who can make the hard
decisions don’t want to admit the extent of the  problem. That will soon

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  1. Con Devree says:

    Daily Prayer For Priests (St. Therese of Lisieux)
    O Jesus,
    I pray for your faithful and fervent priests;
    for your unfaithful and tepid priests;
    for your priests laboring at home or abroad in distant mission fields.
    for your tempted priests;
    for your lonely and desolate priests;
    For your young priests;
    for your dying priests;
    for the souls of your priests in Purgatory.
    But above all, I recommend to you the priests dearest to me:
    the priest who baptized me;
    the priests who absolved me from my sins;
    the priests at whose Masses I assisted and who gave me Your Body and Blood in Holy Communion;
    the priests who taught and instructed me;
    all the priests to whom I am indebted in any other way
    (especially …).
    O Jesus, keep them all close to your heart,
    and bless them abundantly in time and in eternity.

  2. Neil Bray says:

    We have to trust in the Lord.
    The quote below is just part of a message from a priest Fr George Rutler, to his parishioners before moving to a new parish in New York after 12 years of service. It is offered here as reason for hope.
    “Our Lord knows that 99 sheep are not enough if one more is lost. Since 2001 our flock has doubled, and there have been among them nearly a dozen who have been called to the priesthood. While I am the only priest in this parish, the visiting priests who assist in various ways have been a great support. I have heard in these twelve years possibly around 45 or 50 thousand confessions, and my fellow priests may have doubled that. No one save the angels in Heaven will know the wonderful graces that have been given in our confessionals, and that has been a chief joy to me, along with the priestly vocations of those fine young men who have been like sons to me. Our small parish staff have always been loyal, and those who help in other ways have graciously preferred to go unnamed. The volunteer faculty of our CCD classes, which have grown ten-fold, could more than match the finest of any school, and young people come from long distances for the Pre-Cana program which is unsurpassed for its sound teaching of the joy of true marriage. The holy Liturgy has been accompanied year after year by our music director and choir… Our lectors read the sacred lessons of God’s lively oracles with dignity, and even cut short their ballgames and surfing in the summer to do so.”

  3. Soline Humbert says:

    When reciting this prayer by st Therese of Lisieux one should bear in mind that Therese understood and welcomed her early death as preferable to being excluded from fulfilling the ordained ministry she deeply felt called to by God. She saw death as a sign of God’s mercy in sparing her the pain of exclusion from priesthood.
    In the process of Therese’s beatification her sister Celine, also a nun, gave the following testimony under oath:
    …in 1897, but before she was really ill, Sister Thérèse told me she expected to die that year. Here is the reason she gave me for this in June. When she realised that she had pulmonary tuberculosis, she said: ‘You see, God is going to take me at an age when I would not have had the time to become a priest…. If I could have been a priest, I would have been ordained at these June ordinations. So what did God do? So that I would not be disappointed, he let me be sick: in that way I could not have been there, and I would die before I could exercise my ministry’.
    St Therese did die age 24,the canonical age for ordination.
    Also under oath there is a testimony that Therese had requested that her hair be tonsured (part of the ritual of ordination then), and that her sisters had acceded to her request.
    I have no doubt she is interceding for her sisters,as well as her brothers….
    And about “making hard decisions”…well I think a lot of us have to take our courage in our hands and make those hard decisions, and not leave them to others, unless we too have committed ourselves to paralysis through fear.

  4. Sean (Derry) says:

    Ahh! Soline @No.3, not that old, ‘St Therese would have become a priest if she had lived long enough’ nonsense again. St Therese fully understood that she could never be ordained a priest, which is quite obvious if her writings are read in full (and in context) and neither was she an advocate for women priests.
    For a more accurate account of St Therese’s desire to be able to serve God in every possible way, I suggest you read an article on this subject by Peter Mc Donald. Here is a link:

  5. Anthony Murphy says:

    The real question is, what can we learn from elsewhere? In the United States many dioceses now have an abundance of vocations and they have changed the situation in ten years. For example in the Diocese of Lincoln, which is smaller than Cork and Ross they have 47 men studying for the diocesan priesthood. Ten years ago they only had 11 in the seminary. Little Rock smaller than Galway has 21 men in seminary. St. Louis had to build an extension to the seminary because the numbers were overflowing. Paterson now has over 40 whereas just five years ago they had 5. What can we learn? Or perhaps the key question is: are we willing to learn??

  6. Soline Humbert says:

    That “old” statement “St Therese would have been a priest if she had lived long enough” is of your own making not mine.. Please don’t attribute it to me and then refute it. It is not what I have written. What I have written is based on the evidence of the testimony under oath: St Therese linked her death to the canonical age of ordination and the pain she felt. I note the text you mention, yet again,as almost all biographies, ignores the very clear testimony under oath of her tonsured hair.”The sacrifice of not being able to be a priest was something she always felt deeply. During her illness, whenever we were cutting her hair she would ask for the tonsure, and then joyfully feel it with her hand. But her regret did not find its expression merely in such trifles; it was caused by a real love of God, and inspired high hopes in her.” Why do you think this does not get mentioned?

  7. Soline Humbert says:

    A present time perspective and an urgent plea for discernment:
    This is what William A. Barry SJ, a well known spiritual director wrote about women and ordination in one of the chapters of his book Paying Attention to God: Discernment in Prayer. He begins the chapter mentioning the callings of Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux, then speaks of some women with whom he’s aquainted ….
    […] In the contemporary Catholic Church in the United States and elsewhere there are hundreds of women who identify with Therese’s desire [to be a priest]. They feel that God has called them to ordained ministry in the church, and they find themselves unable to follow through on the Lord’s call because of the stance of authority in the church …..
    For a number of years I have been a co-worker in ministry with and sometimes spiritual director to a number of women who feel so called. Their experiences are not in the public domain, nor do these women want to publicize themselves. Yet, I believe, the church needs to know about their experience as as part of its ongoing discernment of what God is trying to accomplish … I have felt some urgency to try to get into the public domain the experience of the women with whom I have worked. The urgency is compounded by the growing realization that many of God’s people are being deprived of Eucharist because of the death of priests. As more and perhaps different experiences become part of our shared life the church will gain more clarity about God’s intentions ….
    Each of the women I have in mind has been praying seriously for years and has sought regular and competent spiritual direction. Each makes at least an eight day directed retreat every year, and a number have also made the full Spiritual Exercises (30 days) under capable direction. Those whose prayer experience I know best have developed a relationship of intimacy with God and his Son Jesus that has moved from the discernment of the beginner to that of a companion of the Lord. They have asked to be with Jesus on mission, even on dangerous mission, and have been consoled by his acceptance of their desire. They open themselves honestly and humbly to their spiritual directors and look for challenge because they want to follow their Lord and not go up a garden path. In other words, they are continually testing the spirits as best they can. They ask the Lord whether they are deluding themselves about the desire for priesthood since the door seems to be even more firmly closed now than ten years ago. Nothing in their prayer experience points towards such a discernment of delusion. In fact the opposite seems to be the case ……
    All my instincts, training and experience lead me to the conclusion that these women are experiencing an authentic call of God ….. All of us in the church need to take seriously the experiences of women such as I have described. Is God saying something to us about ministry in the church through them? And if so, what is he saying? In Experience and God John E. Smith affirms the necessity of shared experience for a religious community: “A living religion, or rather a religion which hopes to save its life, cannot ultimately afford to avoid the critical test of shared experience. On the contrary, from shared experience comes its life.” So too new life for the church’s ministry may only come by reflecting on shared experience.

    I am sure that there are many spiritual directors in Ireland and elsewhere who could echo this testimony…

  8. It seems appropriate to be speaking of Therese particularly because her “Dias Natalis” (birth into heaven) is September 30th and her Feast Day is October 1st. We should never underestimate the degree of spiritual knowledge that Therese possessed….There is only truth in the Carmelite understanding of the various stages of union with Christ. Assuming Therese was in mansion seven at her death, it means that she was in perfect union with Christ…as much as she could be and still be in the flesh…which means she was privy to the heavenly secrets…and one of them…might have been that not only was she going to pass from this world..but, she was to do so…to spare her the grief of not being able to be ordained a priest.

  9. Peter Clifton says:

    Anthony @ 6
    In the French church, the diocese of Frejus-Toulon has similarly bucked the trend, with regard both to the diocesan priesthood and the many (and varied) institutes within the diocese.
    Are at least some of these exceptions possibly due to the leadership of a stoutly traditional bishop (Lincoln) or of one who is well disposed to the usus antiquior (Frejus-Toulon)?

  10. Eddie Finnegan says:

    How will all this Little Flower-arranging, relics-hugging, tonsure-fetishising female clericalism be any better for the life of the People of God than all the title-chasing, follow-my-leader-deferential male clericalism we have all put up with for far too long? The Seven Plagues of Pharaoh on both their clericalisms! I say. As I told Linda,Derry last week, Praise the Lord that his House has many mansions. There’ll be room for all-sorts.

  11. John Lyons says:

    Spot on Brendan. Look forward to seeing the priests from the bulging american seminaries heading our way ! Even looking more forward to seeing how they will go down with a 21st century congregation.

  12. Soline Humbert says:

    @11 Eddie,
    Therese lived over a 100 years ago, well before Vatican II, and used whatever was at her disposal then (both in terms of language and signs) to try and communicate/express what was within her. At the time she lived in, the understanding of the ordained priesthood was tridentine. I am certainly not promoting its resurrection and certainly not more clericalism, whether male or female. I suspect that if Therese lived today she might very well join you in that mansion…. She had a sense of humour, so she’d relish your wit, even if you’re not into flower arranging!..

  13. Brendan, thank you for another excellent piece, absolutely honest as always, and, as John rightly says @12, “spot on”.
    “The lives that priests live ……. demand a level of psychological and emotional maturity that few people actually achieve”. That is the crucial sentence, for me.
    I thought very seriously about the priesthood in my last couple of years at secondary school. My mother, perhaps an atypical Irish mother, said to me ” Paddy, you must think very seriously about this”. And, thank God, I did. I still remember her serious expression even today.
    If my young son were to have the kind of thoughts about vocation to the priesthood that I had, I would be very seriously concerned for him. I don’t think there is much chance that he will, however.

  14. cathy swift says:

    An historical perspective on developments in the Irish church – by the time Bishop Gille of Limerick was writing at the beginning of the twelfth century, there appears to have been far more churches than there was in the 7th and 8th centuries and by the end of the twelfth century, there were more churches in the diocese of Limerick then there are currently parishes in the modern diocese. But if you compare the role and duties of priests (In so far as we can discern them) between the 7th and 8th centuries and the twelfth, there seems to have been an increase in their involvement with the lives of their parishioners. In particular, there is no evidence that in the earlier period, priests were celebrating the sacrament of marriage for everybody (though they were probably blessing the unions of some) and the sacrament of confession had grown enormously in importance. In the earlier period, the emphasis is very definitely on baptism and on funerals and to some extent on teaching and preaching. Also it is not clear how often Mass was offered and to whom (whether it was largely limited to those living on church estates or to professed religious as some have speculated.) By the end of the twelfth century, daily Mass was offered at the cathedral of St Mary apparently for everybody but it is not clear whether daily Mass was ever available outside monastic instiutions in earlier times or even if it existed in all monasteries. If our current world is demanding new ways of seeking vocations, maybe it is also demanding new ways of envisaging priesthood – not just the argument about whether females can become priests but also what should be given priority in a priest’s daily life. I have visited parts of France where the local mairie is now in charge of weddings and even funerals – not because of secularist instincts but because there are no local priests and in the parish of Bar sur l’Aube, the local priest is in charge of 50 churches so he visits each church once a year.

  15. Joe O'Leary says:

    Thérèse de Lisieux has a huge following among priests (less so among sisters) — consider Greene’s Monsignor Quixote as an example. The tonsure story was new to me.

  16. Clare Hannigan says:

    Given that the majority of teenagers and young adults in Ireland have no real connection with the Church we should not be surprised that there are so few vocations. Detailed research ought to be carried out into why so many people are turning their back on the Church. Could the culture of clericalism etc which gave rise to the scandal of child abuse also be part of the reason why people are leaving the Church. If someone under 18 is being subjected to acts of emotional abuse at the hands of priests or influential members of the faith community they can look to the child protection service for assistance. If the person being bullied is over 18 there is no where to go for help. The only choice available is to accept the treatment or to leave the Church. Under Health and Safety legislation employers are required to have anti bullying policies in place within their organization. Lay men and women who serve the Church on a voluntary basis have no rights or protections. One young adult pointed out to me that – given that so few people will be attending Mass in years to come the lack of priests may not be such a problem.

  17. Without priests (and senators) life will, we hope, go on and people will eventually manage to serve God in spirit and in truth without them and develop new structures. A lot of dead wood stands in the way of progress and has to be cleared away. In Central and South America hundreds of thousands of Catholics have left the Roman Catholic Church and joined evangelical churches, where there is no priest. Who is the loser? This is spoken of as a reversal, but for whom? For the power structure of course, not the individual. Commentators who bemoan this phenomenon are never thinking about the individual. They talk of “The challenge for the church”, ie the power structure, that people have found a way to serve God that they really believe in.

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