Fr Kevin Hegarty
DR Christopher Jones, the retired Catholic Bishop of Elphin, returned to he public forum at the Western Regional Development Conference, held recently in Ballaghadareen. In his contribution, marked by melancholic passion, he claimed towns in the West of Ireland were more alive in the 1940s and 1950s than today. He saw little hope for his ‘own County of Roscommon’. He instanced the beautifully situated “Roscommon Town, which now does not even have a hotel,”so when tourists come there is no place for them to gather.
Rural Ireland, especially in the west, is in decline. As the recession ends new jobs are being created mainly along the east coast. The traditional mainstays of village life are disappearing. Garda stations and post offices have closed while small shops and pubs are fewer.
Perhaps because the matter was too sensitive for a senior Catholic cleric, Dr Jones failed to mention that many Catholic presbyteries have also closed or are in imminent danger of closure. There are a lot fewer priests now, in the memorable image of Seamus Heaney, “visiting neighbours, drinking tea and praising home made bread.” This change has been caused not by modernisation but by necessity.
Vocations to the priesthood in Ireland have been in steep decline for forty years. Long gone are the days when Maynooth was the biggest seminary in the world. New ordinations are rarer than resting corn crakes in an Irish summer. The crisis that loomed on the horizon for a couple of decades is now here. Several parishes no longer have a resident priest. In the recent clerical changes for the archdiocese of Tuam, a number of priests were given administrative responsibility for two parishes. Elderly priests are being encouraged to stay on active service past the age of retirement. It reminds me of the joke about the Leitrim football team in the 1950s when it was said it was harder to get off it than on it.
The response of church leaders to the crisis has been a combination of lethargy and pious optimism that the tide will turn.
Suggestions that ordination might be opened to married men and women have, until recently, been greeted prosily by the Vatican. There has been no appreciation of how the ministry of priesthood might be enriched by married and female experience. During the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict, discussion of these matters was actively discouraged.
Twenty years ago, when the then Bishop of Ferns, Brendan Commiskey, called for a debate on compulsory celibacy, he was summoned to Rome, where he received the Vatican version of Alex Ferguson’s hair dryer treatment.
In the last two years the barricades against modernity have been lowered in Rome. As in so many other areas, Pope Francis is actively encouraging discussion on admitting married men to the priesthood.
He sympathised with the plight of Bishop Erwin Krautler who told him of the acute shortage of priests in his diocese in the rain forests of Brazil. He advised Krautler to bring a proposal on married priests to the Brazilian Bishop’s Conference which might make ‘concrete suggestions’ to Rome.
Closer to home Bishop Leo O’Reilly has stated that he will ask that the matter be discussed at the Irish bishops meeting in October.
In a recent letter to The Tablet Journal, Dr Crispian Hollis, the retired Bishop of Portsmouth, called the ordination of married men, ‘a logical step forward’. His letter provides a limpid crystallisation of the need for change.
He wrote: “I fear we are in danger of becoming a church in which the celebration of the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation will become increasingly difficult because of the shortage of priests and the over stretching of those already engaged in their generous ministry. A church that cannot celebrate the sacraments for the people of God can scarcely be the church that Christ founded.”