For a week last June, the International Eucharistic Congress, held in Dublin, was a beacon of light and vibrancy that Irish Catholicism has been sadly lacking in recent years. Almost two decades of clerical abuse scandals, bishops resigning for failing to protect children, and an often-hostile media reveling in the Church’s misfortune have taken their toll.
The Eucharistic Congress afforded Irish Catholics the opportunity to come together and celebrate their common faith. Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin said “the extraordinary interest that was shown for the workshops and catecheses of the Congress tells us just how much thirst there is in our Catholic community to deepen the understanding of our faith.”
The Dublin Eucharistic Congress provided a striking counterbalance to a creeping narrative that sees Irish Catholicism in terminal decline.
Irish Catholics have shown a resilience in the face of aggressive secularism and Church failings that has surprised many.
“More than one-third of Irish Catholics attend Mass every week,” says David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute, a pro-religion think-tank. “Of course, we’d like it to be higher, but that is a large base to build on.”
However, at the same time, a recent survey found that 75 percent of Irish Catholics say the Church’s teaching on human sexuality has no relevance to them. This, Quinn believes, points to the need for the Church to work harder to get its message across. “Priests need support so that they can preach what the Church teaches,” he believes.
But priests in Ireland are becoming few and far between. And as hundreds of priests die or retire in coming years, who will take their place? Who will be there to quench the thirst that Archbishop Martin speaks of or celebrate the Eucharist?
In Ireland, vocations to the priesthood have remained stubbornly low and continue to drop at a time when decline has been largely halted in the United States and other parts of the western world. This year, the number of Irishmen entering seminary to train for the priesthood hit an all-time low. While Irish bishops have spoken of a vocations crisis for almost two decades, the stark situation came into sharp focus this autumn when just 12 men began studies for Ireland’s 26 dioceses. It is the lowest number of new seminarians on record, almost half of last year’s class of 22 men.
On average, just 50 percent of men who enter Irish seminaries go on to be ordained. Based on this year’s entry of 12 men remaining steady—if not declining further, as certainly seems possible—approximately 180 Irishmen will be ordained diocesan priests in the next 30 years.
At the same time, it is estimated that 1,684 priests will have either died or retired from active ministry in that time-frame. These estimates do not take into account the number of men who may leave the priesthood or become incapacitated before the usual retirement age of 75.
This means that by 2042, approximately 450 priests will serve in Irish parishes, as opposed to the 1,965 currently working in the country’s 26 dioceses. The number of priests serving in parishes in Ireland is set to shrink to less than a quarter of the current number in just 30 years, unless the current dramatic decline in vocations is arrested.
Father Gerard Dunne, OP, vocations director with the Irish Dominican Friars, says, “There is little that can be done to put a positive spin on what should be a good news story for the Irish Church. The small number of entrants is quite worrying and follows a downward trend for the past few years.”
Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin provoked controversy earlier this year when he appeared to criticize current seminarians. In the course of a wide-ranging speech, the archbishop turned to the vocations crisis. “It is not just that the number of candidates is low; it is also that many of those who present are fragile and some are much more traditional than those who went before them,” Archbishop Martin said.
Professor Patricia Casey, a clinical psychiatrist who has worked extensively within Church settings, rejects Archbishop Martin’s claims. She accuses him of making a “sweeping statement that was insulting to current seminarians.”
“If the statement is true, Archbishop Martin should have had the courage to say where he got the information from,” said Casey. “If it was a supposition, the archbishop should consider apologizing to current seminarians and to the people in the pews who would be worried if his statements were true.”
Casey also thinks the archbishop’s remarks raise more fundamental questions about his leadership. “His approach and style need to change. He needs to be more positive and offer more encouragement,” she insists.
“Based on my own experience of meeting with recently ordained priests, I have been highly impressed by their commitment to the faith and their understanding of it,” Casey adds. “I have no reason to believe that these priests are fragile.”
Father Dunne says he believes that rather than critique those already in formation, bishops would “be better served in trying to understand and remedy those elements that appear to discourage candidates for priesthood.”
Nonetheless, he believes the archbishop has kicked off a discussion about a crisis few people are willing to name. “It was a source of encouragement for vocations directors, particularly since it is rare in Ireland to hear a bishop speak about priestly vocations,” he said.
“What will have disheartened many people, including priests, religious, vocations personnel, and particularly candidates for the priesthood, is the categorization of candidates by Archbishop Martin,” said Father Dunne. “Simplistic categorization of potential candidates to priesthood is not very helpful.”
The Dominican Friars are the only part of the Church in Ireland bucking the downward trend in vocations. The Order currently has more than 20 men in formation and accepted five new novices this year. Father Dunne has been working as a vocations director for the past 12 years. Statistics for the vocations office of the Dominican friars in Ireland over the past decade shows that more than 40 percent of enquirers (of which there are approximately 60 each year) are what Fr Dunne describes as “returnees” to their faith.
“These are men who in general were born and raised as Catholics but turned away from the practice of their faith for many years and then return to practice through their contact with new ecclesial religious movements and the influence of holy individuals,” Father Dunne explains. “Rarely is their return through the traditional parish route. Essentially, these men have to go out of their way to be reinserted into the life of the church. Their re-engagement, when it is authentic, often expresses itself in enquiry about vocation.”
Father Dunne says that a significant number of enquirers come from traditional Catholic families and backgrounds.
“These candidates have only ever known the Church in Ireland to be one that is almost constantly in crisis,” he says. “My experience is that they have a deep desire to serve the Church despite the frailties and crisis and want to make a significant contribution to its renewal.”
Is it possible for Irish dioceses to replicate the success of the Dominicans when it comes to vocations? Father Dunne is encouraging dioceses to take four major steps.
First, dioceses need to begin to think about having priests whose primary task is promoting vocations in that diocese. “There is enough evidence from various parts of the world to demonstrate that having full-time vocations directors is an important contributor to increasing vocations,” he says.
Second, dioceses need to create a “culture of vocations.” “This means that a diocese takes every opportunity to seriously ask the question of men that they come into contact with whether they have thought of priesthood as a way of serving the Lord.” This approach, Father Dunne says, has proved to be very effective, particularly in some dioceses in the United States and Australia.
Third, dioceses need to pray for vocations. “If we are not on our knees praying for vocations, then we can be sure that there will be no vocations,” Father Dunne says.
Fourth, the priesthood is a unique calling and should be promoted vigorously. Fr Dunne believes that “a new culture within the Church has emerged where the vocation of the permanent deacon is often highlighted more vigorously than that of priesthood, where parish pastoral workers are presented as a new form of ministry to point where they are regarded as almost as important as considering vocation to the priesthood.”
“These two examples demonstrate that the call to priesthood is being drowned out while the promotion of other forms of ministry is encouraged. Why are dioceses afraid to promote the vocation to priesthood?” he asks.
Andrew O’Connell, a layman who works with the Presentation Brothers, agrees that the Church in Ireland needs to work harder to create a culture of vocations. He points to a recent example in Cork where parishioners from across the diocese attended a vocations resource evening. Resource material was made available by different groups, including religious congregations, for use in parishes.
“It’s one of the first signs I’ve seen of lay people taking serious ownership of the promotion of religious and priestly vocations,” says O’Connell.
He believes that it can be something of a quiet revolution. “Lay people are at last confident enough in their own vocation and their own identity in the Church to promote vocations to priesthood and religious life. And thankfully priests and religious are secure enough in theirs to allow them to do so,” he says.
O’Connell believes that many priests and religious have been reluctant to promote vocations in recent years. “This has happened largely out of fear that it might be seen as promoting clericalism or in some way threatening lay involvement in the Church,” he says. “Consequently, a generation of Catholics has grown up without ever having priesthood or religious life presented to them as a realistic option.”
He believes that the real challenge now is for pastoral councils to build a vocations culture in their parishes. “This means that the parish, as a community of faith, should be actively nurturing, supporting, and encouraging religious vocations,” O’Connell says.
There is increasing evidence that the hierarchy is starting to take the issue more seriously; it was discussed at the recently concluded Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization in Rome. Following their recent general meeting, the Irish bishops’ conference released a statement noting that “of particular focus for the Synod [of Bishops] will be the lack of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life at the present time, an issue discussed at length by the bishops at their meeting.”
Bishop Donal McKeown, auxiliary bishop of Down and Connor, admitted that the current situation is “certainly very worrying, particularly for those dioceses that have not had a vocation in many years.
Bishop McKeown said he believes future vocations will come from youth movements that are “growing in passion for the faith” rather than from “a generalized appeal for more vocations.”
He said he had been struck “by the great energy in many youth groups and movements within the Church. There are little communities of young people growing up with a passion for the faith, this is where vocations will come from.”
Despite the stark future awaiting the Church in Ireland unless the current trend is arrested, Bishop McKeown said he has “no fear for the future.”
“I think what we are trying to do is to discern God’s way forward for the Church in Ireland,” he said. “It is a time of grace, this is where we are, and the Lord will show us the way forward—the Lord continues to be with us.”