Faith Matters

Does the Irish Catholic Church have a contingency to combat vocational decline?

In St Joseph's Church in Dundalk, three young men from Belfast Limerick and Galway are ordained as Redemptorist priests
Conor Tivnan

A new survey has revealed that 42 per cent of Irish Catholic priests believe that the celibacy requirement should be dropped.

However, 63 per cent of the priests surveyed did not support the ordination of women as priests in the Church.

The random sample survey of 60 priests across the 26 dioceses of Ireland found that these priests favoured the abolition of celibacy for the following reasons:

:: It would reduce loneliness and isolation

:: It would increase the number of vocations

:: It would make the church more attractive

:: It would give greater diversity by having both celibate and married clergy

Founder of the Association for Catholic Priests in Ireland, Fr Brendan Hoban is one of those in favour of dropping the celibacy requirement.

"Unless the decision is made to ordain married men as priests, the Catholic Church will virtually disappear. They are on a road to God knows where," he said.

"I think that in the long run, the bishops and the people who are in positions to take decisions on these issues are going to be blamed by history for the disintegration of the Catholic Church in Ireland, which is going to happen in 15 years time unless something is done now."

The ACP last year proposed three strategies on how best to reform and respond to the lack of vocations across the dioceses of Ireland - ordain married men of proven responsibility and virtue, invite priests who left the priesthood to get married and to return to ministry and extend to women ordination to the permanent diaconate.

The survey found that 58 per cent of priests who were against the idea of dropping celibacy argued that the Church of Ireland have married clergy and they are also finding it difficult to attract numbers.

Many of the respondents also claimed that the problem is not celibacy, but a crisis of faith in a society that has become more secular.

The other major findings of the survey showed that 63 per cent of priests agreed that the Catholic Church should not sanction the ordination of women as priests.

One of the main reasons that they gave for their opposition to ordaining women as priests was that it would go against scripture and tradition.

Fr John Coughlan, a priest in the Parish of Boyle, believes that the ordination of women priests would be a very kneejerk response.

"We can't come along and say that we have run out of men so let's start ordaining women as priests. That in my view is a very poor reason. I wouldn't dismiss the idea, but I think that it is an ancient tradition that priests are chosen from among men."

However, 37 per cent of priests surveyed were in favour of ordaining women as priests. 67 per cent said they favoured it because they believed it was fairer to women who make up half of the congregation.

The other respondents suggested that it would provide a more balanced pastoral scene; women by their nature would have a better understanding of women's issues and that it is a matter of justice and equality.

This is a view that is supported by a sister in the Convent of Mercy in Roscommon.

"Women are 50 per cent of the congregation. Jesus would not have wanted a church of injustice. He would have wanted the inclusion of both men and women. There is a real imbalance for us women in the church and I think that this needs to change," she said.

Having read and examined the results of this report, the Archdioceses of Tuam and Armagh, gave detailed responses and possible reforms and recommendations on what contingency plans the Catholic Church should set in motion.

Before offering some reforms and proposals, the Archbishop of Tuam's Diocesan Secretary, Fr Fintan Monaghan gave some figures in relation to the age profiles of the diocese. It found that out of 103 clergy members, 69 were over the age of 60 with 21 priests in the diocese over the age of 80.

Fr. Monaghan said: "We are very fortunate to have a dedicated and interested lay population who are very committed to involvement in church and parish in many different capacities and this is a huge help. We have worked very hard to set up suitable structures through pastoral councils and clustering areas to cater for the recent reduction in the numbers of clergy working in the Archdiocese."

A priest working on behalf of Bishop Eamon Martin in the Diocese of Armagh gave his thoughts and some areas the Irish Catholic Church could look at to improve the rate of vocations.

"In order to respond to the current challenges and the ongoing decline in vocations, here in our own diocese we have already progressed with the development of pastoral areas and as well as priests working more closely together, we also have PART teams in place (Pastoral Area Resource Teams) and those teams come together to help support the different parishes within the pastoral area."

The Catholic Church's communications office was asked to respond to the findings of the survey and the comments made by Fr Hoban that the Church is facing extinction in 15 years time if it does not have a clear contingency plan to combat the drop in vocations.

The CCO were contacted because they are the media office for the Irish Catholic Bishops. They referred me to the National Vocations Coordinator, Fr William Purcell for a response.

Fr Purcell, who is responsible for looking at ways to encourage people to join the priesthood responded by saying: "I would say that everyone of the Vocations Directors in Ireland in their own dioceses are doing everything they can in relation to the promotion of vocations. However, the problem is that we don't have full-time vocations directors in dioceses and that is certainly something that the Church in Ireland needs to look at."

Ultimately, the Pope and the Vatican Council will have the final say what the Catholic Church will do to address the crisis of falling vocations and the increasing demand for women to be ordained as priest.

The Catholic Church in Ireland also needs to respond to the falling numbers and the increasing secularisation of Irish society. How they react to these challenges will determine its very survival in Ireland.

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CASE STUDY

Islands off the coasts of Ireland are facing a similar falling rate in the number of priests.

Fr Maírtin O'Conaire, parish priest of Inís Mór, the largest of the three Aran Islands, has experienced at first-hand the added pressure of ministering to not just one, but three parishes which make up the parish of Aran.

When he took over the post of parish priest on the Aran Islands, he came at a time when the parish priest of Inís Oírr and Inís Meáin, Fr Joe Jennings, had died at the end of 2013. This meant that Fr Mairtín was the only priest ministering to the three Aran Islands.

The relentless severe storms of the past winter wreaked havoc on his journeys to the other two islands to celebrate mass.

"There are some Sundays when you simply can't get out to the islands to say mass due to winter restrictions and this winter the boats couldn't travel due to the dangerous conditions.

"During the winter, I would have mass here on Inís Mór on a Saturday evening and a Sunday morning and then I would take a boat in the afternoon to Rossaveal and get another boat to Inis Meáin or Inís Oírr which means that the other two islands would be able to have Sunday mass every second weekend.

"Islands by their nature and the people who live on the Aran Islands are very independent. I may be the only priest here which is difficult at times, but it is the people who look after the church. At the end of the day, being a priest here has its pros and cons, but I don't find it restrictive."

Other islands off the west coast are also losing priests. Valentia Island in the Diocese of Kerry lost its only priest, Fr John Shanahan last summer, due to retirement and he wasn't replaced.

Valentia Island became the third parish in Kerry without a resident priest as the decline in vocations continues to put pressure on parish ministry.

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