Time for Catholic Church to act on pastoral crisis

Second Reading

FALLING NUMBERS Recently ordained priests Fr Eugene O’Boyle, from Claremorris, and Fr Shane Sullivan, from the USA, pictured with Archbishop of Tuam, Dr Michael Neary, before their ordination. The poor take-up of vocations in recent years is a crisis the Catholic Church has to address, says Fr Kevin Hegarty.

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

In 1962 the Radharc television programme produced a charming portrait of the Limerick village of Doon entitled ‘The Village with the most vocations in Ireland’. It revealed that from this small village had come a large number of priests and nuns. Well over 100 young women from the community had taken the veil within living memory.
Last week The Irish Times revealed that the Convent of Mercy in Doon had closed in June. The remaining seven nuns had departed for new homes. The contents of the convent were auctioned at a sale last weekend. Some of the artifacts will probably surface in pubs and restaurants as reminders of our pious past. They will serve as talking points between the perusal of the menu and the arrival of the food.
The closure of the Doon convent is another indication of the decline of traditional Catholicism in Ireland. The failure to understand and adapt to social change and the clerical sexual abuse scandals have undermined a once powerful institution. Church leaders have tried to traverse the modern world by the guidance of out-dated maps. This decline is especially evident in the sharp decrease in vocations to the priesthood and to religious life.
For example in 1965, 441 men were ordained to the Catholic priesthood in Ireland. Last year, according to the current issue of the Irish Catholic Directory, only 14 diocesan priests were ordained. Until recent years the high number of existing clergy masked the implications of this decrease.

Fewer hands make heavy work
Now, as older priests retire or die the pastoral crisis is coming sharply into focus. There are now several priest-less parishes in Ireland. Statistics indicate the trend is about to become an avalanche. Take, for example, the small diocese of Killala, an entity of 22 parishes. Here, seven priests are due to retire in the next decade when they reach the age of 75.
Only one priest of the diocese is aged under 40. As of now there are no student priests who might fill the inevitable vacancies. The situation in Killala is replicated, with varying degrees of emphasis, throughout the 26 dioceses in Ireland. As a somewhat desperate measure bishops have taken to extolling the values of clustering parishes as part of what Bishop Brendan Leahy calls ‘the evolving clerical landscape’.
When the public relations verbiage is extracted from their statements, what this means is that an ageing cohort of clergy face a greater volume of work. The stark reality is that within the next few years many Catholic communities will be deprived of the Sunday Eucharist, the heartbeat of Christian life.
Some weeks ago the Irish Catholic hierarchy established a National Vocations Office. The purpose of the office is to build ‘a culture in Ireland where vocations to the priesthood are talked about, prayed for and encouraged’. It will promote the ‘call to diocesan priesthood’. It will also seek to co-ordinate and animate diocesan initiatives, whatever that means.
What disappoints me is about the hierarchy’s initiative is the poverty of its aspiration. It concentrates solely on the promotion of the male celibate priesthood. Nowhere in the statement is there any acknowledgement of how priestly ministry might be enriched by opening it out to married men and women. Meanwhile the pastoral crisis gathers pace. The elephant is no longer stationary in the room. He has to trample on the furniture.