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Sacraments could “disappear” from Irish churches as priests become “endangered species”: cleric

The sacraments could “disappear” from Irish churches as priests become an “endangered species”, a cleric has warned.

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Father Tim Hazelwood, parish priest in Killeagh in County Cork and spokesman for the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), gave the warning ahead of the ACP Annual General Meeting this Wednesday.

“We’re facing a catastrophic situation in the next ten to twenty years, because there are not enough male celibate vocations to keep our parishes alive”, Hazelwood warned.

“The sacraments could disappear in some parishes because our priests are all getting older and no one is coming through to replace them”.

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The average age of priests in Ireland is around 70.

Last year, the country’s main seminary – St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth – accepted just five candidates for formation, meaning that generational change in the priesthood has not been forthcoming.

Amid the cuts to Mass times all over the country, restrictions on baptism and wedding schedules and non-replacements of parish priests, Hazelwood’s personal situation as a priest is typical.

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In his Midleton deanery, “there is one [priest] over 80, two over 70, nine over 60, 10 over 50, and two over 40”, Hazelwood revealed.

He added that age profile gives “food for thought”.

“Fast forward 15 years and the very best you could hope for is 10 priests for all that area and, even if healthy, they will all be elderly men”, Hazelwood said.

“That is the stark reality”.

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Why it matters

Hazelwood added that shortages mean that priests are now required to travel the length and breadth of the country in order to conduct services.

That means there’s no time left for connecting with the local community, he said.

“The days of priests being able to attend the receptions of weddings and baptisms are long gone – we just don’t have the time anymore”, the priest lamented.

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“And that’s a real shame because we’re missing that personal contact.

“In rural Ireland, priests have traditionally been – like doctors – a big part of the community, but that’s all changing now. People don’t know their priests as well”, Hazelwood decried.

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What’s next

Hazelwood warned that in one or “definitely” two decades “priests in Ireland are going to be an endangered species, unless things change”.

“We’re facing a really bleak future unless new measures are brought in”, the priest cautioned.

The ACP – which has a membership of over 1,000 priests in Ireland – is calling for married priests and women deacons as part of that “change” and those “new measures” necessary to halt the Church’s slide.

The ACP is also pushing so that priests who left the Church to marry be allowed to rejoin.

The drive to end compulsory priestly celibacy received a boost last week after bishops gathered at the Vatican for the Amazon Synod voted to call on Pope Francis to allow the ordination to the priesthood of married men in the region and to study more possibilities for official “ministries” for women, including the diaconate.

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The vote for married priests passed by 128 votes in favour to 41 against, and the nod to possible women deacons by 137 to 30.

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