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Falling numbers of vocations could see ancient parishes wiped out, according to the co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priests this week.
“Faith communities sustained over centuries will collapse,” Fr Brendan Hoban told The Tablet, as Ireland’s national seminary at Maynooth reported a new low in this year’s intake of candidates for the diocesan priesthood.
Just 13 men from seven dioceses will join the seminary, down from 20 last year. Speaking to The Tablet, Dominican vocations director Fr Gerard Dunne described the continuing decline as “disheartening” and blamed the hierarchy for the lack of active leadership by all but a couple of newly appointed bishops in promoting vocations.
As in the business world, said Fr Gerard, vocation promotion and discernment “needs leadership from the top” but bishops and Religious superiors have failed to offer vocations directors adequate support in encouraging and animating those considering the call of the Lord.
“I have long advocated the need for dioceses and religious orders to appoint full-time vocation directors,” said Fr Gerard, pointing out that the level of return (that is candidates for both dioceses and orders) inevitably rises when this is done.
However Fr Hoban is less optimistic about the effect of vocations directors, saying that the latest figures show the crisis in Ireland is “deep-seated” and apparently “permanent”. He argues for the more radical solution of the ordination of married men, which he says would “stem the tide as worthy candidates – viri probati – are available to sustain faith communities and arrest the present decline”.
Inviting priests who left to get married back to ministry is another option the that Association of Catholic Priests, which has more than 1,000 members, advocates. “In one parish in Mayo there are seven ‘former’ priests,” said Fr Hoban, who heads a parish in the west of Ireland county.
Asked about the need for bishops, priests and people to be less apathetic in promoting vocations, Fr Hoban said: “This is not a temporary blip in figures that can be undone by simply recommitting ourselves to encouraging male celibate vocations.”
He said that policy had failed over the last three decades and he warned that the success of individual dioceses that have attracted greater numbers of seminarians “seems to be related to less stringent acceptance criteria and a greater subsequent fall-out before and after ordination”
According to Fr Hoban, the underlying problem is that the Catholic community has lost confidence in an exclusively celibate priesthood.
“Wishful thinking and unwarranted optimism are contributing to a denial of the depth of the crisis,” he warned.
However, according to Fr Gerard Dunne, the Association of Catholic Priests’ call for a re-examination of celibacy and the possibility of ordaining married men as a means of solving the vocations crisis is not a suggestion he takes “very seriously”.
“The ACP continues to present a platform of negativity and unworkable solutions to many questions including vocations,” he hit out.
He suggested that the ACP would be better served in getting back to basics on vocations and explaining to their members and congregations the joy of vocation to priesthood and religious life and also encouraging the effort of prayer for vocations.
He said he agreed with recent comments made by his confrere Fr Brian McKevitt OP who described the ACP “as a body that actually was, in itself, a cause for discouraging vocations.”