Update: Catholic Primate of All Ireland Eamon Martin has said he is “very much open” to calls for a softening on the church’s clerical celibacy rules to cope with the declining number of priests.
Speaking after Pope Francis declined to deal with the issue in an eagerly awaited apostolic exhortation, Archbishop of Armagh Martin said the pontiff was not ruling it out but leaving it open for more discussion.
“I think Pope Francis realises this is an issue where there is a lot of divided thinking,” he told RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland.
“I’m very much open to the idea of this and I think Pope Francis is too. He doesn’t shut the idea down, he leaves it open for further discussion within the church.”
Archbishop Martin played down suggestions that Ireland is facing priest shortages as dramatic as the Amazon.
“I think it is considerably further than where the Amazon is now,” he said.
Archbishop Martin said if Ireland is to heed Pope Francis’ call, it needs to officially recognise the role of lay people and the role of women in the church.
It is not “simply about ordination to the priesthood”, he said, but about lay men and women organising and administering parishes, making decisions up to diocesan level and “even exercising the pastoral care that in the past priests would have done.”
Archbishop Martin also suggested more Irish priests should be going to the Amazon as missionaries.
“I know that we think we are very short of priests but I think a church which loses it missionary spirit and its missionary zeal is a church which is dying,” he said.
“And I think that is what Pope Francis is saying to us. Stay missionary, get out there, go and help these people.”
Ireland is facing into a spiritual “famine” because it is running out of priests, a Catholic cleric has said.
Fr Paddy Byrne, parish priest of Abbeyliex and Raheen in Co. Laois, said he was “taken aback” and “disappointed” by Pope Francis’ refusal to approve the ordination of married men to address a priest shortage in the Amazon.
In an eagerly awaited apostolic exhortation, Beloved Amazon, the pope did not refer to recommendations by Amazonian bishops to consider the ordination of married men and women deacons.
Instead, the pontiff urged bishops to pray for more priestly vocations and send missionaries to the region.
Fr Byrne said “about 85%” of priests in Ireland shared his sense of disappointment over the u-turn on softening celibacy rules.
“We are not far away from the reality of what is being felt by the people of the Amazon region,” he said.
The vast majority of villages in the Amazon are unable to celebrate Mass every week because of the shortage of priests. Some villages see a priest just once a year, it is estimated.
Last year a synod of 184 bishops on the future of the church in the Amazon concluded “respected” older, married men should be allowed to become priests.
Fr Byrne said there are “probably more bishops in Ireland at the moment than there are young men in formation for priesthood.”
“So if we don’t change we are facing the exact same (as the Amazon),” he told RTÉ Radio One.