‘There are very few young priests anymore.’
I was recently talking to a tradesman about doing a bit of work in my house. We discussed the job and as tends to happen our chat wandered. He told me that very few young fellas were interested in learning trades nowadays. I said that was a great pity since there the work done by tilers, block-layers, carpenters and so on was essential and fulfilling. He thought for a second and agreed with me. He added ‘sure the same is true for yourselves. There are very few young priests anymore and sure we need them too.’
The Government recently established a programme called ‘Generation Apprenticeship’ to encourage interest in the trades. The programme offers financial supports, accreditation and other incentives with a particular focus on female participation.
The Irish Bishops have taken various initiatives to encourage interest in the priesthood and religious life. They established a vocations office which provides resources on its website (www.vocations.ie) ranging from the testimony of priests regarding what attracted them to ministry to prayers and reflections for those discerning a religious vocation. Dioceses have appointed vocations directors and committees. We have an annual day of prayer for vocations and there are branches of St Joseph’s Young Priests Society across all dioceses.
So far, these efforts have produced little tangible fruit. The tradesman is right ‘There are very few young priests anymore’. Writing in the Irish Catholic, the seminary rector in Maynooth referred to the decline in family and community support for vocations. He wrote about the difficulty in hearing the call of the Lord ‘amidst the cacophony of voices that clamour for …. attention in our busy and noisy world’. This decline of interest in things of the Spirit is accompanied by the six state reports regarding the dark side of the story of our church and country, in particular the outrageous abuse of children and women. These revelations transformed indifference into anger.
In 2018, when welcoming Pope Francis to Ireland, the then Taoiseach told him “religion is no longer at the centre of our society, but … still has an important place”. There are people in today’s Ireland whose faith is at the centre of their lives, just as there are people without faith or hostile to the notion. However, the Taoiseach’s assertion that religion is in decline rings true. In pre-pandemic days, looking around our Churches one saw extremely few potential candidates for the priesthood. The number coming to Mass drops each year by upwards of 1% of the overall population. Of the few young or middle-aged men active in Church, the overwhelming majority have already made other commitments in life, mostly through marriage. In many mainland European counties vocations tend to come from organised associations of young Catholics. These movements have never really taken off in Ireland, on the contrary existing Catholic lay groups like the Legion of Mary have declined steeply. Many people do not experience Church as welcoming.
As the tradesman said priests are needed. At my ordination in Kilmaley in 1985, Bishop Harty spoke of the decline in vocations and his fear that we would not have Sunday Mass in all our churches for much longer. History has proven him right. The network of priests across communities is already a thing of the past. Are the missing priests missed? People who value the sacraments miss them. Some miss having the priest involved in the community through sport, drama and so. Still, these activities continue without priests. Communities miss having their ‘own’ priest who knew them well and could be especially supportive in difficult moments such as bereavement.
What of the future? Virtually nobody expects and even fewer want a return to the past. Too many priests crowd out the baptised and distorts the family of faith. On the other hand, priests are needed to celebrate the Eucharist, fan our faith into a flame, proclaim God’s word. Many priests wonder why the witness of their life and ministry isn’t attractive anymore. Morale among priests is low and the lack of new candidates reduces self-esteem even further.
Maybe our vocations programmes begin with the wrong sacrament. Perhaps the focus should be on the many rather than the few. Baptism is key. The reshaping of our Church which Pope Francis is leading will, in time, prove transformative. Inclusive faith communities where everyone is respected nourish all forms of discipleship without exalting one to the detriment of others. Words inspired by the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero point towards a way forward:
We plant a seed that will one day grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations
that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
Fr. Albert McDonnell livers in Kildysart
Radharc na nOileán Pastoral Area.
Clare Champion Article 29th of January 2021