New figures on clerical numbers in Ireland show that a quarter of all priests currently serving in the Irish Church are expected to retire over the next 15 years.
The findings were revealed by the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) at their AGM in Athlone last week. The association spent the past year researching the figures.
Speaking to The Tablet, ACP spokesman Fr Tim Hazelwood said: “We know it is going to happen. If these priests are no longer working, who will do the work?”
He said something needed to be done now to prepare for this exodus of priests from active ministry.
Referring to the survey as a snapshot rather than a scientific analysis, he appealed to the Irish bishops to collate and publish official clerical numbers to give people an understanding of the reality facing the Church.
ACP members in Athlone were told that 547 priests of the 2,100 working priests in the Irish Church currently are aged between 61 and 75 and nearly 300 or 15 per cent of working priests are aged 75 or over. They serve in 1,355 parishes and 2,652 churches or mass centres across the island of Ireland.
The survey also revealed that across all 26 Irish dioceses, 52 priests or fewer than 2.5 per cent of working priests are younger than 40 and there are just 47 seminarians in Maynooth.
There are 464 working priests aged between 40-60, while 45 priests are out of ministry.
According to Fr Hazelwood, parish priest of Killeagh-Inch in Co Cork, the cohort of priests aged between 61 and 75 is an indicator of the number who should be retiring over the next few years.
Some dioceses, he said, have not acknowledged the reality of the situation. “In those dioceses it is about filling gaps and getting older men to look after more masses and placing bigger expectations on them.”
The ACP figures show that the Archdiocese of Dublin has more than 60 priests aged 75 or older still working full time or part time, the Diocese of Raphoe has 45 and the Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly has 21.
Separately, the Franciscans in Ireland have announced that they will leave their friary in Athlone in January after 800 years.
“Like so many religious bodies, we must make these difficult decisions as we deal with and respond to our ageing and reducing membership,” Minister Provincial Fr Aidan McGrath OFM said in a statement.