“Something is very wrong”; “the clock is ticking”. These are some of the latest reactions as the “crisis point” in the Irish Church reaches apocalyptic levels.

Driving the news

As regards the vocations crisis in the former Catholic stronghold, “we know the statistics, and the future is not looking great as regards numbers, which are going down very rapidly and that will escalate over the next five to 10 years”, Fr. John Quinn, spokesman for the over 1,000-strong Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) in Ireland, told independent.ie February 8.

“Certainly, within the next 20 years we will have a problem with the Eucharist being celebrated”, Quinn lamented.

The big picture

The ACP spokesman was reflecting on the trend in some – but not all – of the Irish dioceses to import priests from countries as diverse as China or Romania to cover the shortage of priests in Ireland.

Even though observers predict that Ireland will be “effectively priestless” in less than two decades, Quinn questioned whether importing priests “is the solution to our particular need in Ireland”.

“We certainly wouldn’t want to be giving the impression that we are not welcoming guys from abroad – that wouldn’t be the ACP’s agenda at all”, Quinn explained.

“Where we deviate from the bishops who bring in priests is – it is great in the short term, but in the long term we need a church that is reforming in a more radical way”.

Go deeper

On possible reforms to the institution – such as allowing priests to marry, bringing back priests who left the ministry to marry or ordaining women as deacons and priests – “the Church is very slow to dialogue about all this”, Quinn lamented.

On that unwillingness to honestly tackle the challenges facing the Irish Church in the 21st century – of which the lack of priests is only one – the ACP spokesman said the Irish bishops should take a leaf out of Pope Francis’ book and implement more lay-clerical co-responsibility and episcopal synodality in the Church.

“We need to see more of that in the Irish Church, where people are asked their opinions, because it is the people in the pews that need to be asked how they feel about the future and where they feel the Church is going”, Quinn explained.

“Everybody’s opinion is important. We are a Catholic Eucharistic people; it needs a priest to celebrate the eucharist.

“When there aren’t priests to do that, it becomes a problem.

“Rather than waiting for the situation to become absolutely critical, we need to address this now because the clock is ticking”.

Why it matters

Quinn is by no means the only Church figures in Ireland denouncing the structural problems in the Irish Church which are shifting almost unbearable burdens on to the few remaining priests, who suffer from increading workloads, an increasing age profile, and what one Northern Irish priest – talking to the BBC – called “chronic loneliness”.

Another leader in the ACP, Fr. Roy Donovan, gave an address to reform group We Are Church Ireland February 10 in which he denounced that there is “something very wrong with priesthood”.

Especially in Ireland, Donovan said, where priests have “suffered from a massive dose of clericalism” and seen themselves as “the special ones”.

“We had no sense of the common priesthood of all believers”, the ACP leader admitted.

“People up and down the country are beginning to see that our systems, structures, parishes are no longer fit for purpose. We have too many dioceses, parishes, too many churches – more than we need”, the priest continued, as reasons for why not only young people, but Irish of all generations, are drifting away from the Church.

“We have too many celebrations of masses on Sundays with small gatherings. We have reached a crisis point in the Irish Church”, Donovan alerted.

“The faith we now have developed in the 19th century”, the priest explained, warning that “this 19th century Roman Catholicism [that] entailed a profound pacification of the laity: keep people happy with all kinds of devotions” no longer serves today, and bishops have shown reluctance to move forward.

“The engine is still running, but the wheels are spinning and going nowhere. Can’t go forward or backwards. As in the U2 song, ‘stuck in a moment you can’t get out of'”, Donovan said, denouncing that many in the Irish Church are still stuck “holding on to what we know”, like flogging “a dead horse”.

“A lot of priests are saying ‘sure it will see me out’ and continue to work out of the old model”, the ACP priest told We Are Church Ireland Monday, lamenting the fact that “there is not enough appetite for change which would require major reversals”.

For the record

That lack of “appetite for change” on the part of the Irish Catholic hierarchy was well expressed by two letters – one from a former and one from a current priest – the ACP published last week on its website.

In the first letter, a former priest who left the ministry to marry – commenting on a radio interview with Bishop Fintan Monahan of Killaloe – denounced that “we have a leadership in the Irish Church that is waiting for someone else to make the decisions”.

“Are we really waiting for the Brazilian/Amazon Church to lead the Western Church in a wake-up call  to the reality that we have a vocation crisis?”, the radio listener continued, pointing to Pope Francis’ long-awaited apostolic exhortation on last October’s Amazon Synod, which could open the door to the ordination of both women and married men.

“Is the leadership of the Irish Catholic Church saying that our churches will be sustained by Asian or African clergy?”, the letter-writer continued.

“I don’t envy the task and the responsibility that bishops must face, but if the best they can do is point at the lack of faith in the homes, may God have mercy on us all”. 

“We don’t need leaders who are rigid with indecision”, wrote the listener, addressing himself directly to the Irish Bishops.

“Lift your heads out of the sand. Take the bold decisions now and stop waiting for others to make the first move”.

What’s next

In the second letter published last week by the ACP, Redemptorist Stan Mellett warned the Irish Bishops that the “bold decisions” they need to make extend to reforming the “highly structured and regimented system” in which priests are trained in seminaries.

“I could favour neither the ordination of women nor the ordination of men as formed and trained over the last few centuries”, Mellett lamented.

The Redemptorist deplored the way seminarians are trained confined in “monastery type buildings” where they sleep, eat, study, exercise and relax only as a group, and where contact with the outside world – and even with friends and family – is discouraged.

“The ordained minister for today and tomorrow will need to have a mind set and attitudes whereby he/she is like the rest of men and women – not a person apart! Deeply prayerful with ‘the bible in one hand and the daily paper in the other’ at the service of all life and all creation!”, Mellett advised the Bishops.

The Redemptorist called for “Gospel men and women” as the “Pastors of the future”.

“Everyone is priest, prophet and king; each one with different roles and gifts serves the whole People of God. Like Jesus who came not to be served but to serve and give His life for many”, Mellett wrote.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.