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The television version of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall is the latest account to challenge St Thomas More’s reputation as a courageous defender of the rights of conscience. Was he, in truth, a liberal icon, a religious fanatic or something in between?
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On the day that the papal nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Charles Brown, told the US-based Catholic News Service that he saw “that Irish Catholicism had entered a new springtime,” representatives of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) were trying to convince a group of Irish bishops that the Irish Catholic Church was facing, among other things, a vocational crisis of enormous magnitude.
Archbishop Brown said that young Irish seminarians he met at St Patrick’s College, the national seminary in Maynooth, and in Rome, showed a “renewed enthusiasm for their faith”. That may well be true, but the numbers are miniscule.
Figures on the bishops’ own website show the age profile of Irish priests. Over 65 per cent of Irish priests are aged 55 or over. There are only two priests under the age of 40 in the Archdiocese of Dublin. A priest in Killala diocese, Fr Brendan Hoban, pointed out that there has been a priest and celebration of the Eucharist in his parish –Moygownagh – since the eighth century. But he believes he will be that last priest in that parish. At the moment there is a priest in every parish in Killala. Within 20 years there will be seven serving 22 parishes spread out over a wide area. The situation is much same in other dioceses.
The research points out that to maintain the status quo would mean ordaining 82 priests each year. The reality is that 20 students entered Maynooth in September 2013. It is likely that only 10 or 12 will be ordained in 2020.
The nuncio says that he was positive about the state of vocations in Ireland, but acknowledged that the number of priests would drop. He believes “parishes will have to share resources and combine and cluster, and that will be an opportunity for lay people to take on a larger role in the Church”. I wonder, has he ever sat down with priests and lay people to discuss the issues of clustering? It was one of the topics which the ACP team raised with the bishops last week. Clustering is placing further heavy burdens on older priests, which is endangering their health.
Furthermore, the sacramental theology underpinning the notion of clustering is appalling. Priests who have no pastoral connection with a particular communities will be going around from one congregation to another saying Mass. Just think what that will mean to the emotional and spiritual life of the priest.
The nuncio called for women to play a more visible role in the Church, but he doesn’t say what these roles might be. If he were to spent a half an hour in a class of 17-year-old girls, he would get an earful about what young Irish women think of the way they are treated by the Church. These girls and their older sisters are walking away from the Church and it will take action, not words, to convince them that the Church cherishes their gifts.
The ACP, which has more than 1,000 members, asked for a meeting with Archbishop Brown two years ago. He refused, and said that “it would be more appropriate if we meet with the Irish bishops”. Maybe if he had met with the ACP he would have a much more realistic understanding of the state of the Catholic Church in Ireland and the challenges it faces.
Fr Sean MacDonagh is a Columban missionary priest and a spokesman for the ACP