Recently Fr Brendan Hoban, a priest of the Killala diocese in the west of Ireland and a leading figure of the Association of Catholic Priests (in Ireland) wrote a contribution on the vocations 'crisis' in Ireland on the website of that association. Part of his contribution was taken up the one of Ireland's online news journals - TheJournal.ie. The piece below in italics is what Fr Hoban wrote and reported by the online news service:
An Irish priest has warned that the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland is in jeopardy as the number of priests in the country continues to dwindle.
Fr Brendan Hoban said that the church is “in denial about vocations to the priesthood”.
“When we try to pretend that everything is just as it used to be, that nothing has gone wrong, we do what the orchestra on the Titanic did, we keep playing, we pretend that everything is normal,” he said in an article for the Association of Catholic Priests. “That’s what denial is.”
In Mayo’s Killala diocese, there are now just seven priests under the age of 55 years old for 22 parishes. Tuam will have just 50 priests for 55 parishes by 2020, Hoban warned.
In 1984 there were 171 ordinations or religious professions in Ireland compared to the more recent figure of just 22 in 2006. There are now just 70 people studying for the diocesean priesthood in Ireland, with just 12 in Maynooth.
“We don’t need to have 20/20 vision to see this particular train coming down the track,” Hoban said. “All we need to do is to be able to count.”
The priest said a number of things could be done to address the problem, such as ordaining married deacons who already work in parishes as priests or fast-track education and formation for ‘men of proven faith’ in parishes. We could also invite priests who left to get married to return, he said.
“The reality is that in 20 years there will be few priests in Ireland and those that are still standing will be mainly in their 70s,” Hoban added. “So there is an inevitable logic with asking the question, Who will break the bread for us?”
The fact that Fr Hoban writes about the so-called 'vocations crisis' does us all a favour, I would like if many more had the courage to do so. However, many of his proposed solutions are predictable and tired. The call for ordaining married deacons and inviting priests who have left to get married to return are not answers but misplaced pipe dreams. He knows as well as I do that this is not going to happen. These 'solutions' are a real distraction from the core question - what to do about actively promoting vocations to priesthood and religious life in Ireland?
It is important for readers to know that there has been a great lack of enthusiasm or initiative from the church in Ireland to promote religious and priestly vocations. With the exception of the Year of Vocation in 2009 (with mixed reactions and outcomes), the malaise is further deepened with much negativity around vocations within and without church circles and a distinct lack of leadership regarding working towards any solutions. With rare exceptions (for example Vocations Sunday), it is almost impossible to hear a sermon preached about the divine call to the hearts of men and women (and I don't mean religious and priestly vocations exclusively - but marriage and the single life too). It was therefore very heartening to hear the Papal Nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Charles Brown, highlight vocations during his address at the annual Corpus Christi procession in Cork last weekend - in the context of the Eucharist. Both vocation and Eucharist are inextricably linked.
It is very discouraging to hear of a not insignificant number of priests and religious who declare (many openly) that they would discourage young and not so young men and women to think of pursuing a vocation. It is even more discouraging that some new groups of Catholics in Ireland (priests and laity) do not even begin to consider what the root cause of the lack of vocations is. Their tendency is to blame the church and the 'institution' for everything! Indeed, some of these groups will say that the Holy Spirit is speaking to the church in Ireland and that is the reason for the great decline in vocations. That's a real insult to the Holy Spirit! So, before we go blaming other bodies or institutions outside of ourselves, it seems to me that the church in Ireland has many questions to ask of itself in the first instance.
Searching for information on priestly and religious vocations in Ireland.
Given the accepted fact that the vast majority of people interested in thinking of pursuing a vocation in this day and age will ordinarily check the internet and social media for readily available information, I decided to do some research as to what they might find in the Irish context.
As an aid to understanding where Irish dioceses stand in promoting vocations through their websites, I trawled through the web pages of 25 of the 26 dioceses in Ireland. I found that just 2 dioceses had dedicated websites for vocations, 6 dioceses made no mention of vocations at all, 9 dioceses did have information that was between three months and four years out of date, 7 dioceses had minimal information after a tedious search for same (one of those 7 dioceses had copious amount of information on the permanent diaconate, but not on priesthood) and just 1 diocese had information that was clearly accessible.
The religious orders (male and female) don't fare much better either. Having looked at the orders affiliated to Vocations Ireland, the umbrella body responsible for religious and missionary vocations in Ireland - the following information is stark. Of the 61 female apostolic religious orders, 34 had no information on vocations or their websites did not function, while 27 had some information. The contemplative female orders fared a little better - of the 26 websites searched, 14 had information on vocations available while 12 did not or their websites were not functioning. There are 13 female missionary congregation in Ireland - their websites are very good. 10 of the congregations had vocational information, while 3 did not.
The male religious orders are divided into a number of categories. Firstly the congregations with priests and brothers (including the Dominicans) - there are 27 such orders affiliated to Vocations Ireland. Their websites show that 8 had no information available or their websites were broken, while 19 had partial or comprehensive information. There are 9 religious orders of religious brothers affiliated to Vocations Ireland - their websites show that 6 have some form of information while 3 have no information at all. The 7 communities of monastic or contemplative men fare best. All of them have excellent information available. Finally, the 9 missionary male congregations have one excellent dedicated site on vocations, 3 have limited information while 5 show no information at all.
The main conclusion to be drawn from this information is that there is much work to be done in the simple and effective way of promoting a way of life. Understandably, resources can be limited for many and maintaining a web presence can be time consuming - however, there is little by way of excuse these days with so much external help available. Anecdotal evidence suggests that when potential enquirers come across no information or old information, they will just look elsewhere.
The best use of resources
Of course, there is more to this vocations debate than good quality information on websites and social media. For a long time now, this blog has been advocating the best use of resources for vocations promotion and direction. Ideally, a diocese or religious congregation should have a full-time promoter of vocations. If this proves too difficult, then a person should be nominated where vocations ministry is the priority of that person, and all other ministries become secondary. Failure to do this really is a recipe for disaster. All the evidence suggests that those entities that allow vocation ministry to be taken seriously stand a far better chance of having success in this vital work.
It is often said that the best vocation promoters are happy priests and religious. I tend to agree. If those charged with promoting the charism of their diocese or congregation are not convinced of what they are promoting, then you would have to wonder whether they are the appropriate person to fulfill the task. Sadly, this is often the case.
The church can hinder the vocations effort
To return to the beginning, the Fr Brendan Hoban contribution is posted on the website of the Association of Catholic Priests. I can say with certainty that the vast majority of people that I meet in the course of vocations ministry are shocked and perturbed by this particular association. They see the agenda of the organisation as one that is divisive and also sending the wrong signals to an educated and evangelical young Catholic population. Their perception is that it always has a negative message and sows the seeds of mistrust in ordinary Catholics throughout Ireland. I have to confess that I agree with the sentiments of those discerners. Many would tell me that it would hinder their thoughts about committing themselves to a life that is represented by negativity.
Similarly, the efforts of some congregations of religious that try to conceal their religious identity or indeed portray a form of life that can be far from living authentic religious life is very unappealing to those considering a vocation. This is a pity because many (women particularly) would love to give themselves to religious life but find the lifestyle of religious life as lived by many in Ireland as to be far too integrated into secular life. They find that religious have fundamentally lost their identity, even though the contribution of religious in the past is highly respected.
Married deacons or returnee priests who have left ministry won't solve the crisis. Looking at how we can do the simple things well around vocations will. But more than anything, let all the interested parties who have a care and concern for the promotion of vocations talk to each other and have a proper debate - one that is respectful and realistic. Enough of the soundbites. And let's get back to basics and fall on our knees and pray the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to his harvest.