The Decreasing Number of Irish Catholic Priests

With the numbers of men joining the priesthood at an all-time low, one can’t help but wonder about the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland. The role of a priest is vitally important; only an ordained Catholic priest has the power to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and to absolve sins. A priest essentially acts as a mediator between God and humans, but there may come a time quite soon where there is no longer a mediator.

In 1984 there were 171 ordinations in Ireland compared to the much more recent figure of only 22 in 2006. There are now just 70 men studying for the priesthood with just 12 in Maynooth. In Mayo’s Killala diocese, there are currently only 7 priests under the age of 55 for 22 parishes. Projected numbers indicate that Tuam will have just 50 priests for 55 parishes by 2020.

The Irish Catholic compiled figures that show the amount of priests serving is to shrink to less than a quarter of the current figure of 4,500 in only 30 years unless the extreme decrease in vocations is addressed. Many in the hierarchy are burying their heads in the sand, however, with Archbishop Diarmuid Martin suggested that there were vocations out there if only the Church could reach them. He said, ‘For the moment, what we have to do is find worthy candidates who are able to live as celibate priests as is the tradition in the Latin rite. I believe that there are candidates there but we are not always necessarily reaching them.’

Priest collar

There are other more serious issues rather than simply not being able to find men who want to be celibate for the rest of their life (good luck with that). The Catholic Church still hasn’t recovered from the horrific mishandling and cover up of child sexual abuse and that has obviously alienated a lot of parishioners, causing many to abandon the faith. However those who still have faith in God may not have faith in the religious system of Catholicism. The religion is blinded by its own traditions, and higher ups are unwilling, or unable, to accept that widespread change needs to happen if they want any hope of young men in Ireland signing up.

The situation for current priests is less than ideal at the moment anyway, with the retirement age set at 75. Priests cannot marry or have children. With the dwindling numbers, the next generation of priests can look forward to a life of being run off their feet with work as there will likely not be enough priests to run the parishes in the country. Even for someone who may be leaning towards joining the priesthood, where are the benefits?

The Association of Catholic Priests offers some solutions to the crisis which include clustering parishes, asking priests who left to get married to return, importing priests from Africa though there would be language and cultural problems there, extending the retirement age for priests to even later than 75 and simply praying for vocations.

Personally, I think if the church wants to generate interest in vocation, they should put away the prayer book and start making some major changes. Tradition has to take a back seat for that to happen. Celibacy is one of the main issues with the priesthood, and allowing priests to marry and have families of their own could be a deal breaker for a lot of potential priests. This could also offer a useful support network for the priest as they spend a lot of time by themselves if they are not performing their duties.

Another issue is the ordination of male-only priests. There are reportedly several reasons given for this, such as The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that only men can receive holy ordersbecause Jesus chose men as his apostles, and the ‘apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry’. Pope John Paul II wrote in 1994 that this teaching is not open to debate among Catholics. Whatever the reason, there is no denying that it could potentially raise the numbers of those wishing to become priests. Sinead O’Connor caused massive controversy when she was ordained in the 1990s by the breakaway Latin Tridentine church in Lourdes. The Catholic Church does not recognise her ordination.

A survey by the Association of Catholic Priests found that almost 90% of Irish Catholics would support the introducion of married priests and 77% of Irish Catholics want women to be ordained. The survey gathered opinions from 1,005 Catholics. It also found that more than 60% of Catholics disagreed with the statement, ‘any sexual expression of love between gay couples is immoral’, and three-quarters of respondents didn’t see Catholic Church teachings on sexuality as relevant to their family or themselves. This survey shows that there is a great disparity between how the Church conducts things and what Catholics actually want. This indicates a need for the Church to make big changes if it wants to stop the increasing dissatisfaction of more and more parishioners before it is too late.

What do you think? Are priests even truly needed? Do you think they have a future if they don’t change? Please comment below.

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