An Irish cleric has called for a “a radical reappraisal and an honest dialogue about what has gone wrong with vocations of priesthood” in order to turn around the “abysmal” vocations slide.

– “Of course” laypeople would be pleased with a lay minister or a married priest

“A new type of leadership has to emerge at local level, unless like secular Europe [we] close up the Church, get rid of the Christian heritage and no longer provide ritual for people”, Father Paddy Byrne, the parish priest of Abbeyleix, Ballinakill and Ballyroan in County Laois, told Midlands 103 August 18.

But he continued: “I don’t think by and large that Irish people want that type of reality.

“Would they be pleased with a lay minister or a married man being ordained in their community – someone who has the necessary skills despite the many human flaws in all of humanity – of course they would”, Byrne suggested.

– Just one new priest to be ordained this year for Ireland’s 26 dioceses

Byrne – who at 46 is the second youngest priest in the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin – had earlier analysed with the Irish Independent the “real vocations crisis” in the country that the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating.

The situation in terms of new replacements for Ireland’s aging clergy is now so bad that just one new priest is expected to be ordained this year for the country’s 26 dioceses – and that much this coming Sunday, when Archbishop Michael Neary of Tuam will ordain deacon Shane Costello to the priesthood in Knock Basilica, in County Mayo.

In fact, more bishops than priests will be ordained in the Irish Church this year, with the consecrations of the new bishop of Achonry, Paul Dempsey, and the new bishop of Kilmore, Martin Hayes, expected to take place at the end of August and September respectively.

Byrne described the lack of vocations to the priesthood as “abysmal”, and lamented “this is not sustainable – we have nobody coming after us”.

– To Church leaders: “Be honest, brave and courageous enough” to “name new realities”, including women deacons

Byrne took pains to point out that he was speaking in a personal capacity as someone who is “passionate about my ministry and very worried about my future”.

The priest recognised that “in our diocese and in every diocese across the country priests continue to give selflessly and many of them are taking full responsibility of the management of parishes well into their 80s”.

But he warned that those sacrifices on the part of elderly priests are still not enough to cover the lack of ordained men, and that he too – despite experiencing his almost twenty years of priesthood as “deeply fulfilling” – was also personally feeling the strain, having recently taken on responsibility for a third parish.

That stress – along with Church scandals and ever-increasing secularisation – were the principal reasons why Byrne called on Church leaders to “be honest, brave and courageous enough” to “name new realities” including the ordination of women as deacons if they did not want to be “foot soldiers at a graveyard”.

“The Church has a huge opportunity to be present in the bits and pieces of people’s broken lives and to do that with great fulfilment. But it is very sad that we are coming to a moment where the presence of clergy will be no more unless we do something to bring about real change”, Byrne warned.

“In rural Ireland, we have seen the loss of the pub, the post offices and very soon we’ll lose the priest”, the cleric lamented.

More on Novena on the vocations crisis:

Theologian proposes solution to priests shortage: recognise “wealth of vocations” of all the baptised

German lay head urges married, female priests to halt “catastrophe” of vocations slide

Layman takes joint charge of Münster parish as auxiliary bishop admits “there are simply not enough priests”

Irish diocese prepares for life without priests

Missionary warns coronavirus Mass cancellations soon to become permanent reality… thanks to lack of priests

Irish Primate, on married priests: “I am very much open to the idea, and I think Pope Francis is too”

“Something very wrong”, “clock is ticking”: “crisis point” in Irish Church reaches apocalyptic level

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