“You never miss the water until the well runs dry”. This is very true about many areas of life, but when it comes to our spiritual needs, the fact that we have instant access to a priest in this country makes us very privileged at this time. Nevertheless, can we expect this to continue?
In 1987, I went to Western Canada to bring home my brother Jack, an Oblate Missionary priest, who was terminally ill. I discovered that he and one other Irish priest ministered to an area almost the size of Ireland. On Sunday morning he said Mass in one small church and then had to travel 90 miles to say the next Mass. When his parishioners realised that this would be his last Mass, men and women hugged him, cried, and hugged each other. It dawned on me that this might be the last priest they could call on to administer the sacraments for the foreseeable future. They were devastated as a community, and said so, and begged him to return.
So could that ever happen in Ireland? The data and research available from the Statistical Yearbook of the Church on our reducing numbers of men being ordained, is a worrying aspect for the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Between 2002 and 2012 the number of Diocesan priests fell by 13% (and nuns by 23%). Priests numbered 3,203 in 2002 but had fallen to 2,800 by 2012. That is a loss of 403 priests in a decade. Over the same period, religious priests or members of Orders or Congregations had fallen from 2,159 to 1,888 a reduction of 12.5%. The Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) themselves explain that in 10 to 15 years time, Irish priests, apart from a tiny number of aged individuals, will have virtually disappeared unless we have a huge and immediate upsurge in men wanting to be ordained. In 1990 we had 525 men studying for the priesthood, today we have about 70. In the Dublin Diocese with its 199 parishes, there are only 2 priests under the age of 40. Going on these figures and trends, the future is bleak for the Church being administered by Irish priests, and will be unsustainable.
Even now, we have elderly priests who have given their life in service to their flock, being pushed into running busy parishes long after they should have retired. We have sick and disabled priests carrying out duties that are demanding, but made necessary in today’s climate. The life of a priest is a difficult and demanding one and now more than ever they need a significant level of competence, communication and emotional maturity. They are on constant call day and night, are present at times of great sadness and trauma in people’s lives and must stand up and give homilies after these events that are a challenge and an emotional drain. They say they have little support except from family members and close friends. They are being asked to take on roles of responsibilities on top of their everyday duties in their parish. This would not be acceptable in any other walk of life without the necessary back up service. Housekeepers are almost a thing of the past, necessitating priests to attend to housekeeping duties after long days of work in their parish.
A recent survey carried out shows that 90% of Irish Catholics would support married priests. Married clergy are acceptable in other religions so why not ours? It may solve some of the loneliness and isolation issues that priests endure. It would, perhaps, give support, a listening ear and bring balance to their work. I have no doubt that priests suffer excruciating loneliness, being alone in sickness, in old age and have problems with obedience and chastity. Why should those responsible for the spiritual care of others have to endure such deprivation themselves? Others in the caring field have support, understanding and concern from their spouses and family. After all priests are in the caring profession also, looking after the spiritual welfare of their flock. There is no valid reason, except a Church Law imposed by the hierarchy of the Church. The men Jesus called to the Last Supper were married men. Even though they were His disciples we do not know if they returned home to their families when they completed their duties. Presumably they did.
For many Catholics the scandals of the fallen few challenged their beliefs and some now attribute their lack of commitment or contribution to that episode. In no other profession would the sins of their counterparts be hung on innocent shoulders. That is what has happened in Ireland and nobody speaks about such an injustice to men who have dedicated their life to an ideal. People tend to forget that when they need spiritual guidance, someone to officiate at deaths, births and marriages that they call on their priest and the comfort of the Church services to add to their ceremony. I have known and worked with many inspirational priests who gave their life to the protection of the poor and those on the fringes. They brought solace and comfort to those who suffered and needed help. The presbytery door was always open and help of every kind was there to support those in want. They kept confidential knowledge entrusted to them secret, even outside the confessional, much of which must have been burdensome and foreign to their way of prayerful and disciplined life.
We must all ask ourselves the question of how we would manage without a priest in times of life’s struggles. Would we be like the parishioners of Vancouver Island, and only realise when the “well is dry” what we are going to miss? Or are we now at this late stage prepared to encourage vocations, pray every day for the work of the priest, offer our unstinting support in parish duties, speak with unconditional love and respect of those who have sacrificed their lives for the love of other people and for God? And make the life of a priest attractive to those that may harbour vocations. If we don’t, well then the fate of having no priest at our bedside when death is nigh, is imminent.
This is a tragedy that could be averted by encouragement, commitment and understanding in helping young men choose the road of priesthood for their life. The hierarchy of the Church must reassess their thinking on how they are going to ensure that the spiritual needs of Catholics can be met in the future. They have no more time to procrastinate but must act decisively and immediately to ensure that the needs of those under their spiritual care are facilitated and the words of Jesus preached by ordained priests.
We owe a debt of magnanimous proportions to all our priests, those at home and those who have done Ireland proud across the world. It would be remiss of us not to leave to the next generation what we were privileged to have in our own lives. So let us pray for change and vocations and express our gratitude to those who blessed our lives and who gave us solace and spiritual care when we were in need.
As we all know “we won’t miss the water until the well runs dry”.