The grim situation the Catholic Church in Ireland faces in relation to its priests is highlighted in a new survey by the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP). Presented at the association’s recent annual general meeting in Athlone, it revealed that 2,116 priests serve in Ireland’s 26 dioceses, in 1,355 parishes and in more than 2,650 churches or mass centres.
Of these 2,116, 299 (nearly 15%) are over 75 and still working and 547 (over 25%) are between 60 and 75 years old. Only 52 (2.5%) of serving Catholic priests in Ireland, meanwhile, are under 40.
A total of 189 priests come from outside the diocese where they serve, the vast majority of them coming from abroad.
A total of 464 priests belong to the 40-60 age category. There are also 115 permanent deacons in Ireland. Meanwhile, 47 men are in various stages of studying for the priesthood at Maynooth National Seminary.
The survey results highlight the scale of the challenge facing the Catholic Church at a time when only 10 seminarians have started their 2022-2023 academic/priestly formation program for Irish dioceses. Last fall, nine men started the program/training.
According to the Irish Catholic Directory for 2022, the official directory of the Irish Catholic Church, 166 priests died in 2019; 223 in 2020; and an estimated 131 died in 2021, resulting in a death loss of 520 priests for the three years (inclusive) to 2021.
Priests are being asked to do more for longer, and sometimes against their will…and I think when you reach 75, your wish to retire should be respected
— CPA Leadership Team Father Tim Hazelwood
The latest figures for seminarians bring the total number of men studying for the priesthood in these 26 Catholic dioceses to 56. New students are currently undertaking their propaedeutic (preparatory) program at the Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Dundalk, the Royal English College of Spain in Valladolid and the Royal Scots College in Salamanca.
At the end of this propaedeutic stage, the seminarian, on receiving an appointment from his bishop, can then apply to a seminary to continue his priestly formation for an Irish diocese.
In 2018, the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome, which has responsibility for seminary formation, strongly recommended to bishops around the world that a propaedeutic program be established for new candidates who wish to be certain of their priestly vocation.
Those who successfully complete the course will continue their priesthood training at the National Seminary at St Patrick’s College Maynooth.
The results of the recent survey were presented by Father Tim Hazelwood of the CPA leadership team who described them as a “snapshot” but said “the reality is that priests are being asked to do longer, and sometimes against their will… and I think when you reach the age of 75, your wish to retire has to be respected”.
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He also spoke of the ACP’s failed attempts to persuade the Catholic Bishops‘ Conference to set up an arbitration panel in each province to resolve difficulties that priests may face. “Most bishops in Ireland are very good at supporting their priests,” he said. “Most are very fair, very fair, very supportive but there is a minority who are not.”
All the CPA wanted was “fairness and justice and a little charity and support,” he said.
He recalled how the association had written to the Episcopal Conference last March about its proposal for arbitration and the bishops’ response was that such a body was already in place, referring to the Council of Priests in each diocese. Father Hazelwood did not recall that the difficulties of the priests were ever discussed at meetings of these councils.
The ACP again corresponded with the Episcopal Conference, he said, detailing the type of difficulties such an arbitration panel could resolve. They gave examples of “four specific cases”, he said. One concerned ‘a priest forced into secularization because he is gay’, while another ‘very angry’ priest had been out of ministry for 3½ years before it was established that he was not had no case to answer.
Another was a priest in his 80s, who had been in prison and was now “in a homeless shelter in Dublin”. A fourth priest had been arrested by two men looking for money who said they would charge him if he did not pay. This priest “couldn’t go to the diocese so he came to the ACP,” Fr. Hazelwood said.
The ACP arbitration proposal was “still on the table”, he said.