IT USED to be considered a cushy number. A free university education, the chance to travel, accommodation and housekeeper provided, instant respect, a fair degree of power, opportunities for promotion, a pension, security for life.

Forgoing marriage and parenthood was a sacrifice but many a bachelor farmer was in the same boat only with the hardship of physical labour to add to his burden.

That was the perception of the Catholic priesthood in its heyday when Ireland was producing so many men of the cloth, they made for a thriving export trade.

We know now it wasn’t the full picture. It was often a lonely, frustrating and stifling existence and many men who opted for it should never have been let past a seminary door, driven as they were by family pressure, lack of alternative opportunities or desperation to hide their homosexuality.

In the priesthood now, the chosen few are becoming fewer as vocations plummet, they preach in a society that rejects many of their teachings and they represent an organisation that has been deeply damaged and discredited — irrevocably in the minds of some former faithful.

So how does it feel to be a Catholic priest in Ireland today and what are challenges, practical and personal, they face?

Fr Brendan Hoban has a list as long as you have time to listen. Parish priest in Ballina, Co Mayo, he is a founder member of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), a representative body for priests, that was set up last year primarily to push for the full implementation of the provisions of Vatican II, the revolutionary package of reforms agreed in Rome in the mid-1960s that aimed at developing a more open, interactive church.

“It was nearly 50 years ago and still some parishes in this country don’t have parish councils (which give lay people a structured involvement in the running of their parish),” he says by way of example of the issues the founders want action on.

But since regional branches of the organisation began forming, the agenda has widened considerably.

“The main general concern that we’re seeing would be that the Church is going through a terrible sort of ordeal this last number of years through the abuse scandals and the way they have been handled and that decisions need to be made around that crisis.

“One of the decisions that needs to be made would be to look at the whole vocation situation — the falling number of priests, the age profile and the increased workload of priests and the declining morale of priests that follows.”

The decline in vocations is startling. According to Eoin O’Mahony, researcher for the Bishops’ Council for Research and Development in Maynooth, there could be as much as a 40% drop in the number of active diocesan priests over the next ten years, reducing the number from 2,800 to 1,700.

That’s still more than the number of parishes — there are 1,362 on the island — but with parish populations varying from a few hundred to many thousands, some parishes will continue to warrant at least two priests while others will have to do without.

Statistics were last gathered by Maynooth in 2007 but a more comprehensive survey is planned for this autumn.

“It is quite an urgent issue,” O’Mahony says. “I only have anecdotal evidence so it’s a personal interpretation rather the findings of research, but I would feel that there is real stress on the system.

“Even if you want to talk about it purely in terms of human resources and the amount of manpower available, there is a real difficulty out there, and that doesn’t take into account the personal stress on the individual.”

Fr Paddy Rushe knows all about demanding jobs. He’s not only administrator (the term ‘parish priest’ is being phased out in some dioceses) of the Redeemer Parish in Dundalk but he’s also been the National Coordinator of Diocesan Vocations Directors for the last five years.

It’s his task, in conjunction with his diocesan colleagues, to try to get men interested in joining the priesthood. He’s having mixed success. Last year there were just 16 new seminarians beginning their studies, divided between Maynooth, St Malachy’s in Belfast and the Irish College in Rome, where in 2009, there were 36. But he’ll lose 40% of those before ordination time and with the average age of new entrants now standing at 32, so that they’re nearing 40 by the time they begin parish work, it doesn’t solve the problem of an ageing workforce.

He’s realistic about the challenge presented. “In Maynooth, you can look around the cloisters and see the change over the years. The class pictures are hung up on the cloister walls and if you go back to the 1950s, the frames are about four feet long by three feet wide and there are 50 to 70 pictures in each. In my year, 1996, we had 26. Last year we had nine. The frames keep getting smaller.”

But he says the studies the prospective priests undertake reflect the reality they will face.

“They are being prepared for collaborative ministry. The essential role of the priest hasn’t changed. Celebrating the Mass and sacraments is still the core function. But a lot of the other work priests have been doing will be done by lay pastoral workers — paid employees and volunteers.

“I think that actually makes the priesthood more attractive. There’s more of a structure to the priest’s role than there was in the past when the job description was that you basically did absolutely everything to do with the parish. I think the guys who are coming forward expressing an interest see that and I think the fall-off in numbers is stabilising.”

Being a newcomer preparing for a new style of priesthood is very different, however, to being a long-server who has come through the last 20 years of clerical child sex abuse scandals and is still struggling with the fallout.

Fr Hoban says the subject of child protection is still a source of much fear and frustration among priests.

“As an association we feel that the media has not given the church any credit for the advances that have been made in child protection. “I don’t mean credit in terms of praise but an acknowledgement that child protection procedures are now very stringent and surpass that of many other professional groups.”

He says priests are also concerned about the way allegations against priests are handled and how practices differ from diocese to diocese.

“There are specific ways of stepping down a priest but very often because it’s done badly, there are situations emerging, particularly with historic cases where the allegations may not have much substance, where priests have been stepped down very publicly by bishops and then when everything has been cleared up a year or two years or even three years later, the priest is reinstated but his reputation is gone. It’s very difficult for a priest to keep going in those circumstances.”

It is hard not to feel sympathy for the wrongly accused priest. Normally, people against whom allegations of sexual offences are made are not publicly named, and by law, if they are charged with an offence they can not be named until they are found guilty by a court.

But the public nature of priests’ work, and the public nature of their stepping aside, means it is practically impossible for priests to avail of that protection.

“There are priests who have soldiered and served for forty years and more and they are fearful and frightened in case there would be a question mark put over their work and indeed over their families by association. There is a lot of fear and trepidation about that,” Fr Hoban says.

Fr Michael Drennan is a Jesuit priest and psychology graduate who spent many years counselling priests and religious and he recently addressed priests in the Clogher diocese about taking care of their own health, mental and physical.

He says the abuse scandals and continuing fallout has taken its toll on priests.

“It has taken a lot out of priests. I would not want to be alarmist — there are stresses in all jobs and in all walks of life and there are priests who handle stress better than others just as there are people in all walks of life who cope better than others and there are some who are better at asking for help than others.

“But in terms of the issues that come up for priests, diocesan priests don’t have the same structure as a member of a religious congregation so there is more danger that they may suffer isolation, stress, anxiety, depression.

“Some of the practical things I urged them to look at were taking time off, attending for regular medical check-ups, talking with other priests.

“I know some of them have difficulties just taking their time off because they can’t find someone to cover for them but those things should be worked out at a higher level.

“There needs to be a plan for five years down the line instead of crisis management and I think if it was discussed more openly at a higher level — nationally or at least regionally — that would be helpful.”

Given the age profile of diocesan priests — half of them are over 55 — many of them are afraid to look too far ahead because there is no longer a certainty that they will be provided the care and accommodation that retired and ill priests could previously take for granted.

THE financial crisis has hit dioceses too with many pension funds decimated, salaries (which vary across dioceses and ranks from under €10,000 per year to just over €30,000) have been either frozen or cut, and revenues are on the slide.

“For my age category — early 60s — there is definitely a fear that the dioceses will not be able to provide accommodation for us when we get too old to work,” says Fr Hoban, “We’ll get our contributory pension from the state like anyone else but probably not an occupational pension.

“Funds are declining and as the number of people going to Mass goes down and as older people die out, they’ll decline further. Older people are financially very supportive of the Church. The younger group are less so.”

It is hard to know the true extent of dissatisfaction or despair among priests. The ACP doesn’t claim to represent them all — just the 500-plus who have signed up for membership — and the demise four years ago of the association’s predecessor, the National Conference of Priests in Ireland can be interpreted either as evidence of defeatism among priests or as proof that things weren’t so bad that they felt the need to agitate.

There are no public records of the number of priests on stress leave — if a priest can’t continue in ministry or needs time out, they usually go on sabbatical which could just as easily mean anything from a study break to an overseas work experience programme.

Vocations co-ordinator Fr Paddy Rushe says there is a greater awareness now of the importance of priests maintaining a good state of mind. Psychological evaluation of prospective seminarians and ongoing psychological support throughout their studies only began in the 1990s but priests who have been ordained since then are generally more accustomed to the idea of talking through troubling issues.

“I don’t think there is one model of supports or interventions. Each diocese has its own way. But most dioceses would have clerical support groups for peer support and there would be annual retreats and that kind of thing.

“Most bishops are very approachable and will arrange help if needed. It may not be laid out in a document or have a particular structure but help is certainly available.”

Fr Brendan Hoban, however, is concerned about the state of mind of the Church itself.

“I worry whether the Church has the ability to reform itself sometimes. A revolution has to take place in attitudes.”

Yet he isn’t totally pessimistic. “There are times when you are encouraged, like when you see people in parishes taking responsibility for their parish and placing at its disposal their time and skills and energy.

“Then you feel yourself part of an open, transparent, participative church. That’s what we need if the Church and the priesthood is going to survive.”

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From florist to fraudster, leaving a trail of destruction from North Cork, to Waterford, to Clare, to Wexford and through the midlands ... learn how mistress of re-invention, Catherine O'Brien, scammed her way around rural Ireland.

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