Priest levels down 20% since 2009

The Catholic Church is facing a critical shortage of clergy after losing one in five of its diocesan priests in just five years.

There were 2,536 active diocesan priests attached to the country’s churches in 2009, but that has slumped to 2,050, a drop of 20% that leaves many of the 1,359 parishes struggling for personnel.

Reform group the Association of Catholic Priests has announced that its annual general meeting later this year will focus specifically on the crisis in vocations.

The association, which represents about 1,000 of the country’s more radical Catholic diocesan and religious order priests, believes not enough is being done at Vatican level to help boost clergy numbers and has called for a review of the marriage ban.

However, Fr Willie Purcell, the Church’s National Co-ordinator for Diocesan Vocations, said there were signs of improvement in the number of men prepared to commit to the priesthood.

“We had an open day at Maynooth last Saturday week and 25 men attended,” said Fr Purcell. “Last year at the same event, 20 attended so we’re up by five and five is good. Over the last two years, the numbers of inquiries generally have grown significantly.

“The reality on the ground is that, at the moment, yes there is a lack of priests nationally, but the other reality is that the number of inquiries about going into the diocesan priesthood is increasing.”

Bishops yesterday marked World Day of Prayer for Vocations by calling on the Catholic faithful to promote vocations within their communities and parishes.

Bishop Denis Nulty said: “I am inviting parishes to reflect on when was the last time someone was ordained from their parish and asking all parishes to think about how they can actively promote vocations. I am also asking parents and friends to encourage, not discourage young people who need permission and reassurance to talk about priesthood.”

There are 4,345 priests in Ireland, according to the Irish Catholic Directory, but only 2,050 are active in diocesan work, while 696 are retired, sick, on study leave, or abroad.

The rest belong to religious orders. This group showed the smallest fall in the last five years, losing just 3% of personnel. During the same period, the number of religious brothers fell by 19% to 557 and the number of nuns by 13.5% to 6,820.

Fr Purcell said Church scandals had affected numbers but added those entering religious life now would do so at a time of renewal. “We have come through bad times, we have come through a time of purification, and now people are renewing their contract with the Church,” he said.

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