The Irish Examiner: ‘First the banks, then post offices … now rural Ireland is losing its priests’ 

In small rural parishes, the loss of a priest through retirement or death is keenly felt, says Conor Capplis, with the Catholic Church slow to react to a problem they have known about for many years.

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When Fr Denis O’Mahony left his native Co Kerry at 18, he was one of six accepted from his small school into Maynooth Seminary to begin his priestly training. This year, just 10 students began their study for the priesthood in the entire country, showing how radically altered things have become for the Catholic Church.

Ireland has been a changed country for some time, and, for many, the Catholic Church has long been left to the periphery. A gradual slowdown in young men hearing the call to the priesthood since the middle of the last century is taking its toll, and many priests are fast approaching retirement or ministering into their 80s.

There was a time when it was common for a son from large Irish families to join the priesthood, but today it is seen as a “counter-cultural” move, according to Ireland’s vocations co-ordinator.

Fr O’Mahony, after more than 50 years as a priest, will retire this summer. Like most priests stepping back from their duties nowadays, it’s unlikely there will be another resident priest to replace him in his rural parish of Abbeydorney, just a few miles outside Tralee.

Built in 1968, St Bernard’s Church replaced its predecessor of 1819, following a centuries-long tradition of holding services on the grounds. It remains to be seen if there will be Catholics to worship between the walls of a new church once the current structure grows old and antiquated.

‘There mightn’t be a priest to fill my place’

Fr O’Mahony said he was sad to leave his parishioners after a 12-year stint in the community.

“I haven’t a fixed notion at all what I’ll do when I retire,” he said from a small room where funeral wakes take place in Abbeydorney’s St Bernard’s Church. “There mightn’t be a priest to fill my place — it mightn’t happen this time, but it will come in a couple of years’ time. There’s no good in lamenting that because it’s facing us.” 

The conversation on dwindling priest numbers develops an added layer of sadness after the unexpected death of MTU Tralee’s chaplain Fr Donal O’Connor at the age of 61. He was regarded as one of the younger priests in the diocese, Fr O’Mahony explained.

The challenge of priest retirement “has been known about for years” and is “more dramatic now than ever”, he said.

“It’s very sad for people,” said Fr Tim Hazelwood of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland (ACP). “In rural Ireland, the priest is going, the post office is going, the bank is going — it’s the end of an era.” 

‘The dogs in the street knew this was coming’

Fr Tony Flannery expressed his frustration at the situation the Church finds itself in. He has not been permitted to minister as a priest since 2012 over his views on homosexuality, contraception, and women priests — views much more commonly expressed by clergymen today.

“It’s very said they haven’t planned for this,” he said. “The dogs in the street knew this was coming.” Revelations of historical abuse in Spiritan-run schools in recent months also doesn’t help the direction the Church is heading, he said.

Last August, Archbishop Francis Duffy of the Tuam diocese said the only certainty for the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland is the “ongoing and sustained decline” of worshippers and priests.

He said, “all trends [point] dramatically downwards” and there is “no turning point in sight” across Ireland.

A recent survey undertaken by the ACP found that of the 2,116 priests in Ireland, one quarter will reach retirement age of 75 in the next 15 years, 15% continue to minister above the age of retirement, and just 2.5% are under the age of 40.

The figures show the Church is approaching a cliff edge that few know what lies beyond. Some predict a paradigm shift towards a smaller institution with a greatly reduced membership but strong faith.

Spread of duties

In an attempt to patch up this burgeoning wound in its corpus, the Church finds itself having to merge parishes and spread out priests to ensure the continuation of regular services which are set to be greatly reduced under new strategies underway.

In the Kerry diocese, priests now spread their duties across “pastoral areas” made up of a few parishes, and often priests will be covering the workloads of parishes without a resident priest. A welcome effort to continue services, but parishioners worry that the unofficial connections will be lost.

“Without Fr Denis, I would just feel a little fragmented, it’s like the sheep and the shepherds,” said Mary Leen, solemnly. “Will I meet my neighbours? Will I meet anybody anymore? Will I have to go somewhere else [for] Mass? I will miss him terribly. We all look up to him.” 

“It’s not just the impact of him saying Mass,” said parishioner Brida Hanley, “it’s all the other things that surround it.” The loss of a priest is not only felt by churchgoing Catholics, but by the community at large, parishioners said.

There are currently three priests covering four parishes in Fr O’Mahony’s Naomh Bhréanainn pastoral area, which looks likely to drop to two after he retires — an arrangement becoming increasingly common.

“The priest is the glue or the stitch to keep the whole thing together,” said local parish council chairman Gerard Doyle. “It’s a pity. It will be a massive loss.” 

Local teacher Tomás Ó hAiniféin said the loss of a priest would be another “missing link” to the community.

“He’d call into the house,” he said. “You’d have the cup of tea and the chat. All those things are good and are part of the knitting of the community. And when the young lads are playing in hurling or football finals, he’d be there in the stand supporting them in his own way.” 

When he began teaching around 20 years ago, up to 95% of his students would attend Mass every weekend, he said. Now it’s down to 0% in most places, sometimes a couple here and there.

“We’ll often blame sports and training and all that [for child absences at church], but there’s a bigger problem in society with regards to dedication to the church.”

Last Hail Mary 

A global synodal process was called by Pope Francis in 2021 to find what Catholics felt God was asking of them. However, the synod has ultimately morphed into a temperature check on how its members feel the institution should change to survive.

Last August, an Irish national synod report summarising consultations at all levels of the church found many want a greater role for women in the church, optional celibacy, and the full inclusion of the LGBTQI+ community.

There were calls for the re-examinations of church teachings to increase appeal to those hitherto alienated in areas such as sexuality, but until the synodal process concludes in Rome in October 2024, the institution looks set to continue fading from public consciousness — save for some 11th hour ‘Hail Mary’ attempt.

Fr Flannery believes the global synod is “about 30 years too late” and “it’s hard to have much hope for the system”.

Emphasised by the Irish Bishops was a need to more greatly involve lay people in the day-to-day running of the church. With a large amount of priests about to retire, it needs every man, woman, and child it can get. However, parishioners in Abbeydorney are torn over the effectiveness of this solution.

“I fear that people like me, the older people, we’ll find it very hard to accept it, you know?” said Gerard Doyle about the moves. “We take our priests for granted but I suppose one weekend we’re going to wake up to the fact we have to work out some way of getting on without them. It’s tragic, but I’m fairly sure the community will step up to it, we’ll have to like.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and I think there would have to be an extremely and genuinely serious look at the role that women play in the church. 

“For too long we’re this last bastion of masculinity. That has to go. We’re all equal and there has to be a greater role for women in the church — otherwise the church will die.

“I’ve worked with women all my life and I think in 90% of the ways, women are much more committed to church than a lot of men are. I see the work they do (teachers) preparing classes for Holy Communion and Confirmation — my God, they do incredible work!” Tomás Ó hAiniféin said. “The door has to be open for a more inclusive church”, and the institution is “holding on to a thought process” long outdated.

“The world and people and societies are different places and it’s time for people to move on.” 

Blánaid Walsh said there “may be no alternative” to women getting greater leadership roles in the church.

“A lot of women would be happy to step up,” she said. “Can [the Church] go back and change [doctrine on the role of women]? We’re all equal, I don’t think God would have any difficulty with women stepping up to it.”

Fr O’Mahony is optimistic about lay involvement in the wake of his retirement, however uncharted it will be for locals.

“Tradition is so strong, I suppose,” he said. 

The priest was always there, and you didn’t have to worry. If that priest wasn’t there, another priest was there. It’s like the head of the family being gone at one level, how do we manage? You still try to carry on.

“People have been so used to the service coming to them, that it is very hard to get used to a situation where you don’t have it. It’s a bit like the post office or the bank closing. You have to adjust to the new reality. Maybe you work out alright, not as well as you were, but [alright].

“I think some people will come into their own a little bit when maybe I’m gone out of the way… It’s unfortunate at the moment, we’re in a time when there is this drop-off in practice. So the pool that you have to draw from is more limited, and that’s a pity.” Fr O’Mahony is under no illusions somebody will wave a “magic wand” to pick the Church up.

“People [should] understand that we’re going through a time of purifying, maybe leading to a death,” he said. “There are some people who say that the change for the better won’t happen until the thing has gone down to the depths.”

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