Speaking at the MacGill Summer School today, Dublin's Catholic archbishop, Dr Diarmuid Martin spoke about vocations and the need for priests as part of a wide-ranging talk on the future of the Catholic church in Ireland. Regarding the topic he said:
One of the first great challenges that the Church in Ireland has to face is the challenge of vocations to the priesthood. Why is it that the numbers entering the seminaries are so low? Is the Church reaching out in the right direction? It is not my intention to enter into discussions here about the ordination of women or the introduction of married clergy. I am talking about the challenges that we face in the realities of the real life of the Church as it is today. We have now married deacons; we have committed, qualified and dedicated lay men and women in various pastoral and administrative services. In new structures of parish groupings, teams of priests, deacons and lay men and women will be working together to provide pastoral care within a wider area, each in accordance with their own calling. But we need priests.
It is not just that the number of candidates is low; it is also that many of those who present are fragile and some are much more traditional than those who went before them. I have no problem with priests or seminarians who come from a solid theologically-based traditional faith background. If anything, I would have greater anxieties regarding priests or candidates who simply go with the trends of the day and who lack a real spiritual and theological anchor. There is however a danger that superficial attachment to the externals of tradition may well be a sign of fearfulness and flight from changed realities: and that is not exactly what we need.
We came in Ireland from a very traditional Church and indeed there are many signs that the traditional rigid Church of more recent times that some look back to with approval may not have been what it appeared.
It is a rarity for a Catholic bishop in Ireland to speak about 'priestly vocations' so this contribution is very welcome. I hope that it might encourage others to speak on the same theme on a more regular basis.
However, I find if difficult to agree with Archbishop Martin on his analysis of the profile of candidates presenting themselves for consideration at the moment. My experience as a vocations director for the past decade or more demonstrates that the vast majority of men that I encounter are highly qualified, spiritually mature, strongly motivated, have a deep desire for strengthening their relationship with Jesus Christ, desire to be of service to God's people, are theologically literate and have no real desire to yearn for the past.
What marks out this new generation of candidates is this: they have not been tarnished with the mistakes of the past. Almost all candidates have been born into an Irish church that has been permanently in crisis. They want to give of themselves in a new and radical fashion for the building up of the kingdom of God in our time and to make amends for what has gone wrong in the past. Confining the analysis of candidates from 'fragile' to 'traditional' is to miss the point. Encouraging men who present themselves with their potential vocation should be of paramount importance. It is regrettable that there seems to be a growing desire in the Irish church to have 'perfect' candidates presenting themselves for priesthood (or male religious life). The reality is that they do not exist.