23 December 2021, The Tablet

Archbishop 'conscious' of declining clergy numbers

Archbishop 'conscious' of declining clergy numbers

The Archbishop of Tuam is “very conscious” of the declining number of clergy in the Irish Church.
John McElroy

The newly appointed Archbishop of Tuam has said he is “very conscious” of the declining number of clergy in the Irish Church and the “dramatic decline” in the number of men studying for priesthood.

Archbishop Francis Duffy, who will be installed as Archbishop Michael Neary’s successor on 9th January, told the Tablet that the situation in Tuam is the same as in most Irish dioceses, and that the “decline in vocations has been sustained for a number of years”. 

“As priests get older, energy levels go down to some extent; so that is another challenge. I think it is important to face it, address it in whatever way we can, and plan for the future.”

The 63-year-old said that during his eight years as Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnois he had always highlighted the reality of declining priest numbers because, “it is important that people know that while they have a priest now, in a year or two, they may have no resident priest and that a neighbouring priest will be looking after their pastoral care”.

He said he would be listening carefully, visiting parishes, meeting priests, parishioners and pastoral councils in Tuam from very early on to “find out how things are on the ground” and as part of his “voyage of discovery” in the West of Ireland diocese. 

There are currently two students studying for the priesthood in Tuam and recently three permanent deacons were ordained. “They are part of the future, but it has to be much wider than that,” Archbishop Duffy said.

He described the synodal process which the global church has embarked on and which the Irish Church is undertaking ahead of a national assembly as “vital”. 

A native of Kilmore diocese, Archbishop Duffy highlighted that Kilmore has a “very long tradition of synodal pathways in terms of assemblies” and had held three assemblies over the last 20 years. 

In the diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnois, where he was appointed bishop in 2013, even before the Pope announced the global Synodal process, the diocese had decided to have an assembly and had begun preparing for it in 2019. 

Due to the Covid pandemic, the assembly process had been held up but people in the diocese felt they were well placed to “dovetail” this local diocesan assembly with the global synodal journey and the national one. “We felt that our priority was our diocesan assembly, and then we would use that to prepare for the Synod in Rome and also the national synodal pathway as well - parallel tracks with a lot of overlap.” 

Describing Ardagh and Clonmacnois’ journey as “a parishioner-led assembly”, he said it was very important to capture as many groupings as possible and listen to what they are saying, from people on the margins, to people who are very active, to people who have ceased being active.

Asked if he would use the experience of Ardagh and Clonmacnois to set Tuam on a synodal journey, Archbishop Duffy underlined, “what works in one diocese does not necessarily work in another, and so there have to be nuances and little changes. It is very important to respect the traditions of a diocese.” 

He also highlighted how the steering committee had decided to have an extra preparatory session to take account of Covid because the pandemic was a profound experience for many people. “We felt it put some things into a different perspective and people might have different views after a year and a half of the pandemic. It was important to capture that.” 

The pandemic and lockdown had taken a toll on priests Archbishop Duffy said. “I made a point of contacting priests several times during the lockdown because priests like to be out among their people – that human contact is part and parcel of the priest’s daily work.” 

He expressed concern about the heightened risk associated with the new Omicron variant. “We are not out of the woods yet at all,” he said.  

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