Irish dioceses should imitate the courage of Pope Benedict

The announcement of the retirement of Pope Benedict was a unique moment in
the modern Church; he is the first Pope to retire in hundreds of years.
His stated reasons for retiring, being no longer able to minister
effectively due to age and frailty, highlight a problem for the church. In
most of the developed world the problem of an aging clergy and the lack of
replacements when they die, or grow too frail to effectively minister, is
now a critical one.
My perspective is of one who has spent a lot of time on the edge, literally,
of my diocese, of Ireland, and of Europe. I have spent 21 of my 34 years in
ministry looking in from, first, Galway Bay and now over Clew Bay. When you
look in from the edge for long enough you can get a different view, a
different understanding, in contrast to those who are always looking out
from the centre. There have been many changes in those years. The latest
involving “clustering” and “consolidation” of parishes are being made to
cope with the shortage of priests but as the shortage becomes more severe
these efforts become more and more futile.
But there is the danger we are merely dealing with symptoms instead of
identifying and addressing the underlying difficulty.
In Ireland we have been somewhat shielded from the shortage of priests by
the high numbers we had to begin with. Gradual reductions were not all that
noticeable to parishioners. Parishes that had two or more priests gradually
reduced services so that the change was not so dramatic.
But from here on the impact of the priest shortage will be dramatic; there
will be parishes in our diocese without a resident priest.
Inevitably some churches will no longer have a Sunday Mass. No longer can
there be a presumption that a priest will be available on demand for
baptisms, funerals, weddings or other occasions. Such events will have to be
fitted into the schedule of a number of parishes.
In church we often minimalize a problem instead of facing it squarely and
dealing with the problem and its consequences. Pope Benedict by retiring may
have given us the freedom to squarely face this problem of providing
ministry with an aging and depleting clergy.
By 2020, a mere seven years hence, there will be a maximum of 50 priests to
serve 55 parishes in Tuam Diocese (Inisboffin and Clare Island having
already lost their priest).
With proper planning at diocesan level, and sensitive explanation of the
rationale of where Masses will, and will not, be celebrated, the majority of
people in the diocese who attend Mass could still be catered for with this
Obviously plans will also have to be made for the provision of pastoral care
to people and for the administration of each parish. These are areas where
the laity can and must take their rightful role. The greater role that the
laity will adopt in these areas is probably the area of most hope for the
future of the church.
The ten years following 2020 will see even greater challenges. Without
dramatic changes in how ministry is provided, our diocese, from a
sacramental viewpoint, will be largely ineffective. Put simply, going on the
current rate of deaths, retirements and ordinations of priests, by 2030
there will be an inadequate number of priests available, possibly just 30,
to allow parishioners in Tuam diocese to readily avail of the sacraments of
Eucharist, Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick.
I can only hope that everyone in church will acknowledge the reality of the
situation and that it will exercise the minds of church leaders. I hope and
pray for openness to new ways and approaches to priestly ministry so that
parishes can truly be Eucharistic communities.
To concentrate solely on the organisation of parishes into clusters and
consolidated pastoral areas, without attempting to discuss the underlying
reasons for the shortage of priests is, at its very best, to attempt an
extremely short-term solution. To borrow a phrase it is merely ‘kicking the
can down the road’, in this case an ever-narrowing, ever-shortening,
cul-de-sac. At worst, I fear that in years to come clustering may be seen as
yet another clerical cover up, the cover up of our refusal to face the
reasons of why in the developed world insufficient numbers are coming
forward to serve as priests.
If short term planning is all that is done, then in ten years we will be
faced with the parish ‘clusters’ becoming larger and more demanding and
priests fewer, older, frailer, and less able to minister.
We need honesty in facing and debating the reasons for the shortage of
priests and how we can overcome it. We need the courage to at least discuss
all options and suggest possible remedies.
Saying we cannot influence matters, that they are beyond us, is nothing
short of an abandonment of our church and in effect will cut people off from
sacraments and church. Our pastoral vision has to be nothing less than that
each parish community will be enabled to celebrate Eucharist in and with
their local community.
Pope Benedict’s courage in retiring when he felt he could no longer provide
effective ministry should encourage us to discuss and tackle the problem of
how we provide effective ministry at all levels, not just the Papacy, in
On 28 February, at 7.00 p.m. Irish time, the See of Peter will become
vacant; Rome will be without a Bishop. However, it will not be left vacant
for long. The Cardinals, without too much delay, will replace the Bishop of
Rome, the Pope. The real problem for sacramental ministry in the church
arises when a priest retires or dies, will there be anyone to replace him?
Parishes could be left vacant for a very long time.
Pope Benedict made a truly historic decision and did something that most
people thought could never happen, something that could not really even be
spoken of to this point. Perhaps we could use it to encourage, even
embolden, us to look again at the problems we are faced with as a church and
together with our bishops attempt to generate options in trying to resolve
those problems. Maybe we’ll come up with solutions we thought could never
happen, solutions that could not really even be spoken of to this point.
Mattie Long

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  1. Mattie,
    Well said and eloquently put. You have hit the nail on the head. Sadly, what are perceived to be ‘future’ problems are present day realities and as such require a proactive and not a reactive response. I pray that the ground swell of reasoned, supportive and faithful responses from many throughout the country will prevail and impress upon our spiritual Fathers the necessity of action as opposed to continued obfuscation and dalliance.

  2. There is evident pain in this piece for the future of the Church in Ireland, a pattern likely to be reciprocated here in the UK in coming years.
    Are we so blind we cannot see?
    The trouble is that locally we can see (and hear). It is beyond these island shores that reality needs to be faced. Will that question be uppermost in the minds of the Cardinals as they gather in Rome or will we still, after the papal election, experience attempted solutions draw from the holy comfort zone of history?

  3. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Fr Mattie Long’s clear view from the Atlantic edge, combined with Fr Hoban’s long view from Killala, and Fr Flannery’s panorama from Esker and many other points of the compass, makes me wonder why so much of the more prophetic thinking hails from west of the Shannon. Once again, as one of the Armagh diaspora, I’m inclined to ask why so many of the first dozen years of the third millennium in the Primatial See have been spent fine-tuning the short-termism of clustering structures which so few on the ground in the parishes seem even aware of. Maybe this is what Fr Madden had in mind a few weeks ago when he wondered whether Rome and the Nuncio should have looked further south and west in their search for a future Primate. If those who make their hobby, and in some cases their living, from planning parochial and diocesan clustering would only listen to the grinding of the tectonic plates, the tsunami mightn’t catch them so unawares when the surface is the last to collapse.

  4. Brendan Cafferty says:

    Well said Mattie. It is about crisis point now, but will be greatly increased in next few years as priests get older and have to work harder.When they go no one will replace them. I was reading in Connaught Telegraph where one priest in Connemara was sorry he could not go to Archbishop Cassidy’s funeral in Tuam as he had Baptism at 2pm that Sat, Mass in nursing home at 4pm, two evening masses at 7pm and 8 pm in two separate churches. And that was just Saturday. So he could not drive to Tuam, he also said he had to miss an uncle’s funeral due to his parish commitments. It seems so unfair that Tony Flannery, a good priest is not allowed to help out in those circumstances. Let’s hope it changes with new Pope, if not, the future is bleak.

  5. Teresa Mee says:

    Mattie, what a wonderful example of a meeting of minds and hearts on the challenges and unanswered questions facing the People of God, bishops and priests included.
    Doesn’t change begin and proceed through QUESTION – CHALLENGE – ACTION?
    I’m confining my own questions to two, at this stage.
    1. What initiatives are the People of God taking, baptised members of the Church in Inishbofin and Clare islands and other communities around the country in response to the current and, presumably, on-going deprivation they are experiencing?
    I’m thinking in terms of the conducting of Sunday Celebration,
    baptisms, presiding at weddings, anointing the sick, presiding at funerals.
    2. How about re-deploying the Pastoral Worker teams together with the many other theologically educated ‘lay’ people around the country to assist local communities respond to the challenge; or would Catholic doctrine present an insuperable barrier to the People of God celebrating their faith with Christ in their midst?
    Teresa Mee

  6. Soline Humbert says:

    Thank you Mattie for your clear-sightedness.
    This very good piece reminded me of what happened to a bishop, also living at the edge, who dared raise similar issues, the Australian bishop Morris: He got dismissed!
    I quote from an excellent article: “THE MORRIS CASE HIGHLIGHTS what is the most serious fault line dividing the worldwide Catholic Church today: the tension between Rome’s insistence on doctrine and discipline, and the pastoral concerns at the periphery.
    The Vatican has signalled it unwillingness to address the problems he was raising in his 2006 Advent pastoral letter. However, the Australian bishops know these are not just problems in Toowoomba, but Australia-wide. And they are not going to diminish. The last generation of Australian-born working priests is rapidly approaching retirement, which is why, in lieu of any better solution, many of the bishops have been busy searching Vietnam, India, the Philippines and Nigeria for overseas-born priests and seminarians to recruit to Australia.”
    http://www.theglobalmail.org/feature/the-inside-story-of-how-rome-ousted-a-bold-bush-bishop/55/ The article makes very interesting,if very disturbing, reading:I recommend it.
    Is it time for “the edge” to take its courage in its hands and to become a cutting edge, cutting through” human traditions rendering null and void the Word of God”?

  7. It will be interesting to see the fall out from Cardinal Keith O’Briens public statement of support for marriage as an option for those entering the priesthood which was aired on the BBC today. A small beginning and a sign of better things to come – perhaps? I wonder if the CDF will take the same hard handed approach to Keith as they have done with Tony. Both men after all have just raised topics for discussion; one loses his faculties, the other gets to choose the next Pope! How ironic.

  8. Elizabeth says:

    Benedict did not retire due to failing health. There is no requirement of a Pope to be in the full of his health. God chose Benedict and Benedict ran away. Our Church has had problems for a very long time but it may all be finally coming to a head and the Church may not recover.
    The Church hierarchy is made up of men who are strangers to women. Women are more than half of the population and yet there is no place in Church teaching for women and more people are begining to realise this.
    Even the Bible is wrong, not just in that it inverts Nature by having a man give birth to a woman but also by being contradictory.
    “27: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”
    Fair enough, God has made 2 people both in his own image and that makes sense. God is neither male nor female but both. It’s logical.
    But then a few lines later:
    “18: And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.”
    “1: And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;
    22: And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.
    23: And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”
    Now this makes no sense at all, God made humans, male and female created he them and then a while later the man is alone and has to give birth to a companion.
    Either there was another female first or the second is true and God made man in his own image which means that God is male.
    Why would God have gonads and other male-ness if there is no female God? it doesn’t make sense.
    Then, God has the woman bring down the whole of mankind by her seeking of knowledge when in fact it is men who have brought down the Church of God.
    It seems that if there is a God that God does not like women.
    The Church is only 2000 years old and people have existed for a lot longer than that. I don’t mean to be flippant but people have lived alongside dogs for about 10,000 years, people have had dogs several thousand years more than they’ve had one God.
    Maybe we should go back to the drawing board for a moral way to live that involves all people as it may have a better chance. I fear that this way is doomed.

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