Priests’ role in society ‘must be reimagined’

The Church has little choice but to ordain married men and welcome former priests back into the clergy if it is to exist in Ireland in 20 years time, a founding member of the Association of Catholic Priests claims.

Fr Brendan Hoban has warned in his new book that the country will suffer a “Eucharistic famine” in 20 years if there isn’t a “measured and gradual... re-imagining” of the role of priesthood”.

“Without priests we have no Mass and without Mass we have no Church,” he says in his latest work, Who Will Break The Bread For Us?

In the diocese of Tuam, he says, there is a parish where Masses had to be cut recently as there were just two priests remaining as two more had retired or left.

In that same parish lived four former priests who had been laicised.

Fr Hoban argues that former priests — many of whom left as they could not cope with celibacy but would still like to work as priests — need to be welcomed back into the fold.

In recent years, married deacons have been ordained into the Catholic Church. But, says Fr Hoban, they will make little long-term difference in their current role as they can not say Mass, anoint the sick, or hear confession. It is being mooted, however, concedes Fr Hoban, that their ordination “is a prelude to ordaining married priests”.

He also disregards as “little more than administration” and a “short-term solution”, the Bishops’ emphasis on ‘clustering’ parishes so they can share a declining number of priests.

Nor is the solution to “import” priests from places such as Africa and Poland, where there are a surplus of priests, says Fr Hoban.

“Language is a problem,” he says. “Few will be able to engage with the complexities and challenges of the Irish pastoral scene, not understanding core cultural values.” African priests, says Fr Hoban, “often have difficulty deferring to the burgeoning role of women in the Irish Church”.

There are currently 4,000 priests in Ireland but in 20 years time, with the greying of the clergy and the collapse in vocations, Fr Hoban says Ireland will be “effectively priestless”.

In the past 23 years, the number of clerical students has declined from 525 at Maynooth, Cloniffe, Thurles, Kilkennny, Waterford, Wexford, Carlow, Belfast, All Hallows, and Rome to just 70 seminarians at colleges in Maynooth, Belfast, and Rome.

Accusing Church leaders such as Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin of being in denial, he warns “we have a decade to come to terms with this crisis”.

In Nov 2012, Archbishop Martin said that “for the moment what we have to do is find worthy candidates who able to live as celibate priests... I believe that there are candidates there”.

Asking questions about the effect of celibacy on vocations, Fr Hoban says too many priests feel disconnected, lonely, and isolated.

“For the priesthood to be lived, there is a balance to be achieved between the need to witness to values beyond the world and the need to live a normal life,” he says.

He also points to the irony that the Catholic Church is now allowing Anglican priests with wives and families to serve as Catholic priests yet will not allow its own priests that left to marry to return.

“Will Pope Francis invite some of those back with his ‘reform and renewal’?” asks Fr Hoban.

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