Why Ireland Is Running Out of Priests

Why Ireland Is Running Out of Priests

Wanted: Clean-living young people for a long career . Responsibilities: Varied. Spiritual guidance, visiting the
sick, public relations, marriages .
Hours: On call at all times. Salary: None, bar basic
monthly stipend.

He hasn’t placed classified ads in the Irish press just yet, but according
to Father Patrick Rushe, coordinator of vocations with the Catholic Church
in Ireland, “we’ve done just about everything” else to attract young men to
the priesthood. And yet, the call of service in one of Europe’s most
religious countries is falling on more deaf ears than ever.

Earlier this month, the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, made a grim
prediction about the future of the church in Ireland: If more young priests
aren’t found quickly, the country’s parishes may soon not have enough clergy
to survive. He told the congregation at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin
that his own diocese had 46 priests aged 80 or over, but only two under 35
years old. It’s a similar story all over the island. According to a 2007
study of Catholic dioceses in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland,
about half of all priests are between the ages of 55 and 74.

Ireland’s ties to the Catholic Church run deep. The ordination of a family
member was once regarded as a moment of great prestige, especially in rural
areas. Even as recently as 1990, over 80% of Irish people said they attended
Mass at least once a week. But the country’s relationship with the church
began to change dramatically in the mid-1990s when Ireland’s economy began
to take off, ushering in years of unprecedented growth. Soon, disaffection
replaced devotion among Ireland’s newly rich younger generation. Most
devastating of all, however, were the sex-abuse scandals involving pedophile
priests that surfaced around the same time. Criticism over the handling of
the case of Father Brendan Smyth — a priest who had sexually abused
children for over 40 years — even led to the collapse of the Irish
government in 1994.

But more was still to come. Last May, the government published the findings
of a nine-year inquiry into child abuse at church-run schools, orphanages
and hospitals from the 1930s to the 1990s. The report, which described
“endemic sexual abuse” at boys’ schools and the “daily terror” of physical
abuse at other institutions, shook Ireland to its core and left the
reputation of the church and the religious orders that ran its schools in
tatters. Then, this week, another government inquiry found that the church
and police colluded to cover up numerous cases of child sex abuse by priests
in the Dublin archdiocese from 1975 to 2004, prompting the head of the
Catholic church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, to apologize to the Irish
people. “No one is above the law in this country,” he said. There are now
calls for similar inquiries to be held in every diocese in Ireland.

The scandals have undoubtedly made it difficult to bring new men into the
priesthood. Father Brian D’Arcy, superior of the Passionist Monastery in
Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, says the only way to reverse the trend may be
to relax the strict rules governing priests’ lifestyles. Top of his list
The vow of celibacy. “Of course it would be a big help if priests were
allowed to marry or if we could ordain married men,” he says. Earlier this
month, he says, a priest in the Derry diocese, Father Sean McKenna,
announced to his congregation that he was in a relationship with a woman and
was stepping down. His parishioners gave him a standing ovation. “Good men
are being driven out by foolish [rules],” D’Arcy says.

But some clerical leaders say that allowing married or female clergy won’t
solve the problem. “They’re easy solutions on paper but the crisis is
deeper,” says Father Patrick Rushe, vocations coordinator for the 26
dioceses in Ireland and Northern Ireland. He points out that the Anglican
Church, which permits both married and female clergy, is also facing a
shortage of vocations. “[Becoming a priest] is a lifetime commitment and a
sacrifice. I think that’s what’s putting people off. It’s not just
celibacy,” he says.

The church’s solution was to launch a recruitment campaign last year,
holding special Masses, workshops and conferences aimed at attracting young
men to the priesthood. The initiative seems to have paid off, at least in
the short term. Last September, a total of 38 Irish men began to study for
the priesthood at seminaries in Ireland and Italy. The figure may pale in
comparison to the 100 or so new seminarians who signed up annually in the
1960s, but it was the highest intake for the church in a decade. Five years
ago, there was only one ordination in Northern Ireland out of a Catholic
population of 700,000 people. “You’re not just going to pull somebody off
the street and they’ll suddenly become a priest,” Rushe says. “It’s a
decision that can take a long time to make.”

Vincent Cushnahan, 29, currently the youngest serving priest in Ireland,
says the church also needs to carry out structural reforms, such as cutting
the number of parishes and giving greater responsibilities to lay people. In some Irish
parishes, for example, non-ordained church members are now responsible for
roles such as youth ministry.

Cushnahan knows how hard it is for the church to recruit young men these
days — becoming a priest was a difficult decision for him to make. “I had
to forsake married life, my own house, money,” he says. “[Being a priest] can be more isolating and counter-cultural than it has been in the past.
It’s more challenging, but also more rewarding because of that.”

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