Sunday 28 January 2024

Rome must move towards a People's Church (Opinion)

Facing large decline in priest numbers, an Irish diocese preps for change –  Catholic World Report

The title of last week’s RTÉ documentary, The Last Priests in Ireland, reflected the grim reality for Irish Catholics – no longer a perception or a wild prophesy – that priests are not just becoming fewer but in danger of almost disappearing in Ireland.

The statistic that hung over the discussion was that the number of Catholic seminarians in 1965 was around 400 while now it is ‘around 50’, according to the presenter of the documentary, comedian Ardal O’Hanlon, though Katie Hannon, the presenter of the later Upfront programme, would marginally move the latter number to a more specific 64. 

Not that the extra 14 matter all that much in the cliff-face of Irish priests’ numerical decline, given that there is usually no correlation, now as earlier, between the numbers starting in seminary and those ordained years later.

I’ve been banging on about this for years and I don’t want to exhaust my readers’ patience but a few statistics make the point. 

In huge urban dioceses like Dublin with over one million Catholics, at one point recently there was just one seminarian. And Dublin has 199 parishes!

In mainly rural dioceses like Killala, which covers north Mayo and west Sligo, future statistics for priest numbers, are proportionally critical. 

Two different assessments of future priest numbers for Killala reached a similar conclusion – within a matter of a few years, there could be as few as eight priests and possibly no bishop as the rumour mill suggests that the probability is that Killala will be ‘merged’ or, in everyday language, ‘amalgamated’ with either Tuam or Achonry.

In Killala diocese, a total of eight priests would mean two in Ballina, two in Tyrawly deanery – one in Ballycastle, serving Tyrawly North and one in Crossmolina, for Tyrawly South – one in Tireragh and one in Erris, with the remaining two as ‘flying curates’ covering the inevitable gaps. 

An indication of the dramatic change that has already taken place is that when I served in Tireragh, there were ten priests in the six parishes of that deanery and there are now four.

But back to the RTÉ programmes. 

What struck me about the discussion on Upfront was the series of yawning gaps that emerged between the Catholic Church and a variety of interest groups calling for change: the gap between the expectations Catholics have and the possibility that they might be delivered; the gap between how the official Church sees things and what Catholics expect; and the gap between people’s continuing perception of themselves as Catholics while accepting a detached attitude to now moveable feasts like going to Mass or contributing to the upkeep of their parishes, its services and facilities.

There was a telling moment on Upfront when Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick suggested, as a possible explanation for the Catholic Church’s reluctance to ordain women, that even though there was almost a consensus among lay Catholics in Ireland and around the world that it was both acceptable and necessary, that the Church "didn’t want ‘to rush things". 

The slip of the tongue, while it had its own internal logic, seemed almost to echo the famous or rather infamous comment of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin when, on his return from the Second Vatican Council in Rome, he reassured the Catholics of Dublin that none of the proposed changes would "disturb the tranquillity of your Christian lives".

On the one hand, Bishop Leahy holding the line is marked, for example, by lay Catholics holding an opposing line by refusing to compromise on issues like the ordination of women. 

Or even parishioners reacting to the withdrawal of priests by saying that they don’t mind what changes are made provided they can retain the same number of priests and the same number of Masses at their present time. 

There are times when the gap between this rock and hard place seems insurmountable.

The compelling point is that the Church’s gradualism in terms of reform inevitably conflicts with the perception of most (though not all) lay Catholics that time is running out and that, unless there is significant movement, Catholics who have been grimly hanging on to the doorposts in expectation of change will be running out too.

Fr Roy Donovan, with whom I share a vested interest in membership of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), and who is at present part of its leadership, seemed one of the few participants who detected a silver lining to the decline in clergy numbers. 

It promised, he suggested, an exit from the cold dead hand of clericalism as exemplified by the past domination of clergy who had presided over the people in a role that placed a focus on status, precedence and control. 

The decline of priest numbers, he continued, would open up the possibility that the gifts of the laity would be released in a very different kind of Church.

Roy’s relaxed manner and his bright and breezy personality as well as his casual dress sense placed him in a different category to the invariably buttoned-up black uniform of his colleagues.

An obvious conclusion that might be drawn from the debate is that unless, at the conclusion of the Roman Synod in October this year, there is some movement towards a People’s Church, as envisaged by the Second Vatican Council 60 years ago, the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland will look even bleaker than at present.

Bishop Leahy suggested that the possibility of women deacons was "under consideration" but that the ordination of women was not on the agenda. 

Anyone watching the RTÉ documentary The Last Nuns in Ireland (on the following night) would realise how impoverished the Catholic Church is by the exclusion of the gifts that women would bring. 

The competence, sensitivity and emotional intelligence of the leadership of several nuns were impressive, indeed it might be said, quite stunning. 

We were given a glimpse of what we’re missing as we fiddle around while Rome burns.