There is little doubt that Catholic priests are under immense pressure. I heard one PP sounding off earlier this year that some in his congregation expected the same service they had had twenty years previously. But regularly two priest parishes are becoming one priest parishes, and within a few years may even have to share a single priest with the parish next door. In yesterday’s Irish Times, Fr Gerard Moloney had some scary statistics that demonstrate that even if Ireland’s a la carte Catholics are still going to Mass regularly, few seem prepared to accept the price of taking up the clerical slack:
Since November 1st, 2000, 1,173 Irish priests have died. In the same period, 101 Irish priests have been ordained. That means that one diocesan priest in five is being replaced at present, and just one religious/missionary priest in 30. On average, the deaths of Irish priests continue to outnumber ordinations more than tenfold.
In 2005, 199 Irish priests died, whereas only eight priests were ordained (Intercom magazine, July/August2006). And this does not take into account clergy who have left the active ministry. These statistics are catastrophic. And they will get only worse.
It has led to a situation strangely reminiscent of the frequent appeals for missionaries to go out to Africa in the 1960s and 70s. But according to Fr Moloney, the main problem is that the church has no organised response to the largely unacknowledged crisis:
the other tragedy for the church is that there is no short or medium-term solution to this crisis.
The number of seminarians in training is tiny and, unless something entirely unexpected happens, will not increase any time soon. Amalgamating parishes and closing churches is not a solution to the priest shortage but merely a response to it.
However, the biggest tragedy of all is that the Catholic Church does not appear to have even a Plan A as to how to face up to the shortage of clergy, not to mind a Plan B.
Possible radical solutions, such as redefining what we mean by priesthood, is not being discussed. Even the possibility of ordaining worthy married men or of extending the ordained ministry to women are not options.