By Cian Molloy - 18 November, 2016
How can the last priests in Ireland survive the final years of their lives with comfort, esteem and affection?
The annual meeting of the Association of Catholic Priests on Wednesday 16 November was a downbeat affair, which was not surprising given its theme: ‘Are we killing our priests?’
Keynote speaker, Fr Brendan Hoban, painted a bleak portrait of life as a parish priest (PP) in Ireland today in contrast to when he was ordained 43 years ago. “Then PPs could expect to have curates who did most of the work – if they couldn’t or didn’t want to do it themselves. Now curates are an endangered species.
“Then PPs could expect comfort and companionship in their declining years,” said Fr Hoban, who is PP of Moygownagh in County Mayo. “Now, in Killala diocese, not one priest in the diocese has a live-in housekeeper. And the statistics indicate that most of us may well die on our own.
“Then PPs took for granted that they were admired, respected and supported by their parishioners. Their words were infallible; their decisions confident and unquestioned. They were like Real Madrid, both respected and feared. Now, we’re often pitied, patronised, reviled, insulted, disrespected, ignored and resented. To continue the sporting metaphor, it’s the middle of the second half and we’re 6–0 down. Now we’re the equivalent of Plymouth Argyle, struggling to stay in the third division.”
Admitting that he was presenting a bleak picture, Fr Hoban said: “We do no one any favours by pretending that everything is fine and that we’re about to turn some mythical corner when everything will be sunshine and roses. We need to stop playing that game.
“The average age of priests in Ireland now is climbing towards 70 years of age. The problem is not that the Church in Ireland won’t survive or adapt to changed and changing circumstances – I have no doubt it will – the question is even more urgent for us here today. It’s this: how can the last priests in Ireland survive the final years of their lives with comfort, esteem and affection?”
The 68-year-old clergyman added that there were other factors exacerbating the growing sense of unease among Ireland’s priests. “We’re expected to work longer and harder. Clustering parishes is offered as if it’s some kind of solution to the crisis in vocations when the dogs in the street know that, at best, clustering is merely a short-term managerial strategy and, at its worst, a form of denial camouflaging the reality.”
Added to the problems caused by the collapse in vocations, the decline in Mass attendances and the consequent fall in income from church plate collections, Fr Hoban said priests are struggling with the growing complexity of ministry in the modern world. “We’re struggling at a pastoral level with issues beyond our training and probably our competence. Take one example, how to minister to parents of same-sex couples who may be upset or worried or confused? How to respond to an invitation to a same-sex marriage of parishioners? What does pastoral care mean in this situation? We were never there before and we never expected to be here now.”
The ACP co-founder also reported that growing isolation and loneliness among priests were affecting their well-being, while the current level of distrust between bishops and priests was creating resentment and anger.
At the AGM in Athlone, where more than 120 priests were in attendance, there was some discussion of a letter to the association from Bishop Ray Browne of Kerry on behalf of the bishops’ conference. The ACP’s reaction to that letter will be published in the next few days.