The list of priests who have died this year from the beginning of March until the end of August makes for grim reading (see page 19). There has been a dramatic rise in the number of Irish clerics who have died compared to the same period in previous years. Of course, not all of them died after contracting Covid-19, but many did. Others will likely have died because of the effective shut down of the entire hospital system for many months.
Each name tells a long story of many years of humble service in the vineyard of the Lord, lives touched and the lifegiving power of the Gospel brought to communities and individuals.
These men have literally given hundreds and hundreds of years in ministry and the fact that their deaths mostly passed without external commemoration is sad not only for their families and communities, but for all of us as a Church. Many of us will remember with fondness the priests that we knew personally who are no longer with us, and all of us should pray in thanksgiving for their ministry and for their eternal reward.
The deaths also highlight the age profile of the Church in Ireland and it is only going one way. The annual diocesan appointments tell a tale of decline with one diocese recently reporting that seven of their priests had died in the last 12 months and four other priests had retired from active ministry. That diocese was lucky to see one priest ordained this year, some dioceses have not had an ordination to the priesthood in recent years and have no aspirants in seminary.
When I was a student in the late 1990s the sociology professor Fr Liam Ryan used to joke that the Church would eventually go the way of the gardaí in rural Ireland. “There’ll be two curates in a squad car covering half a county,” he would say.
While priests haven’t exactly taken to squad cars, many will identify with the feeling that they are now pastorally responsible for an ever-expanding area. Dozens of Irish parishes no longer have a resident priest – something unthinkable less than 20 years ago. Increasingly older priests are being asked to take on extra parishes with all the extra responsibility this entails.
One cleric told me recently that – aged 72 – he now says more weekend Masses than he did when he was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed junior priest almost 50 years ago.
Irish parishioners will increasingly have to get used to their parish priest being from India, Nigeria or Uganda”
Vocations to the priesthood here remain stubbornly low. While other parts of the world like the US and Britain that had been experiencing a vocations crisis appear to have turned the corner, the Irish scene remains bleak. When Pope John Paul II visited Maynooth in 1979 almost 1,000 trainee priests packed in to see him – today there is just a handful.
Some dioceses have started to signal for help and have sent for priests from Africa, Asia and other parts of the developing world where vocations are plentiful. Irish parishioners will increasingly have to get used to their parish priest being from India, Nigeria or Uganda.
This will plug a gap, but only for a while.
We need creative thinking about vocations and we need to look to parts of the Church where the decline has been arrested. Many dioceses in both the United States and in Britain are now showing a healthy number of ordinations compared to recent decades. We should have the humility to learn from their experiences and try to emulate it here rather than listening to the prophets of doom with little to offer other that “we’ve tried nothing and nothing works”.
That is not to disparage those in frontline vocations ministry who are producing fruit, but we need broader thinking as a Church community about how we encourage young men of faith to consider a vocation to the priesthood or religious life.
We also need to look at the religious orders and congregations in Ireland who are actually attracting new vocations. Chances are they are doing something right.
In the meantime, we should thank God for those we have lost. We’ll never see their like again. In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.