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Dublin in a Decade – Archbishop reflects on parish prospects with fewer priests

By Cian Molloy - 20 November, 2017

Numbers on their own do not tell the whole story, but when it comes to vocations the story they do tell is a grim one: by 2030, Dublin could have 111 priest for 199 parishes.

So said Archbishop Diarmuid Martin in a talk on ‘The Church in Dublin: Where will it be in 10 years time?’ which he gave at St Mary’s, Haddington Road, as part of the annual Patrick Finn Lecture Series. The lectures are named after Haddington Road’s current parish priest, Mgr Finn, who inaugurated the talks as a means of encouraging serious reflection on matters of faith and church life.

“The first thing that I must say is that I am neither a fortune-teller nor an inspired prophet and my reflections will therefore have a substantial margin of error risk,” Dr Martin said.”The only absolutely secure thing I can say about the Church in Dublin in 2027 is that it will have a different Archbishop. I will reach the retirement age of 75 in a little over two years time.”

And before presenting figures produced by an actuarial survey commissioned by Dublin’s Priests’ Council, he noted that ‘numbers alone do not tell the whole story’. “I have collected and collated statistics over the years and published them without any attempt at window dressing,” he said. “The figures vary. There are parishes with two percent Mass attendance.  There are others with twenty or thirty percent.  They vary. But I have also consistently said that there are parishes in the diocese which are today more vibrant than at any time in their history.”

“I celebrated Mass on Saturday last, to remember fifteen priests who had died in the past year, while on Tuesday last I ordained two new priests for the diocese of Dublin. Some will immediately cry “crisis”: fifteen dead and only two new priests.  Certainly, we need new priests, but what is important is the quality of faith in people hearts and the level of witness that priests give.”

Nevertheless, statistics do have their own truth, and according to that actuarial survey, the best case scenario for Dublin is a decline of 61% in the number of its priests, down from 389 at present to 144 in 2030, but that is providing that religious orders maintain their current level of presence in Dublin’s parishes.

If Dublin were to lose the assistance of priests belonging to congregations such as the Franciscans on Merchant’s Quay, the Jesuits in Gardiner Street, the Marists in Coolock, the Oblates in Inchicore and the Spiritans in Kimmage Manor, then there would be a 70% drop in the number of priests ‘leaving just 111 priests carrying out parish ministry across Dublin’s 199 parishes’.

According to the Archbishop, “57 percent of the current priests serving in Dublin are over 60 years of age and this is projected to increase to 75% by 2030, and the findings predict that just one new priest under the age of 40 will join the priesthood in Dublin every year up to 2030. Other research findings include a predicted drop in Mass attendances by 33 percent by 2030.  Mass attendance is sadly lowest in poorer parishes and strongest in middle class parishes.”

However, the Archbishop continued, “It should be noted that even among the younger adults who do not participate regularly at Mass, there are many who are still interested in initiating their young people into the church through baptism, confirmation and First Communion.  Many priests and laypeople are looking for ways to build on this, responding to pastoral opportunities as they arise, supporting parents in taking their responsibilities personally, and seeking to ensure there is a welcome when people return.

“If things keep going as they are, one cannot reject the conclusions of the survey.  But if demography is a science which reflects people’s choices, the future will not be about lamenting the negative, or feeling that all is not so bad, but will inevitably be looking at ways in which people’s choices will be influenced and changed.  How do we reach out in a new way to people where they are and create a desire among them to deepen their understanding of the Christian message?

“The response of a parish will involve a different form of ministry. I have called it ‘Working Together for Mission’. It involves integrating the respective roles of priests, deacons, religious, full time lay ministries and the establishment of communities that involve wider activity of all.”

The archbishop says despite the statistics, he is optimistic for the future. “Irish society is still permeated with elements of faith.  Residual faith, however, is probably more fragile in an indifferent world than in a world of hostility. There are deeper elements of goodness and idealism and generosity among young people but despite years of Catholic education, they do not seem to have been truly touched by the knowledge of the person of Jesus Christ. I am optimistic also when I reflect on the lives and ministry of those 15 priests who died over the past year and of the genuine enthusiasm and joy of the two new priests that I ordained. Numbers may be disproportionate, but there is a continuity of goodness and priestly prayerfulness that remind us that the Lord provides.”

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