The spiritual equivalent of the approaching ‘demographic winter’ in Europe and the world has surely taken a firm hold in Ireland. A recent report in the Irish Examiner (3 April 2018) on the state of the Catholic Church in Ireland paints a very grim picture of the future for the faithful in this country. This is in stark contrast with the state of the country at the time of the last papal visit in 1979. Thirty-nine years of continuous secularisation in Ireland has brought about a huge change in attitudes towards the Church; coupled with this, the traditional catechism has been abandoned at large, and has resulted in an ignorant laity who is quite antagonistic towards the Catholic faith.
On the ground, a survey of archdioceses and dioceses around the country shows an ageing priesthood, with human resources stretched. It has meant parishes relying more on the laity, particularly the volunteering parish councils, while a small but growing number of serving priests are from overseas.Senior figures within the Catholic Church are warning that the ageing profile of priests and the lack of new ordinations could mean a further reduction in its footprint around the country.
A survey of archdioceses and dioceses highlights the changing face of the Catholic Church in Ireland. It found that human resources are being stretched, that a small but growing number of parishes are without a resident priest, and that there is an increased role for deacons and for priests coming to serve from overseas. … At least half of the 25 archdioceses and dioceses around the country have seen an aggregate fall in the number of priests serving within them in the past five years, while almost half have parishes which have had to reduce the number of Mass services they can offer. A handful of dioceses and archdioceses have parishes which do not have a resident priest or share a priest with another parish — with warnings that this could increase unless there is a rise in the number of people who can serve (Irish Examiner, 3 April 2018).
The various dioceses are struggling and there have been a few notable attempts to combat the incontrovertible decline. None of these, however, would appear to be particularly Catholic. For instance, the report states that the Archdiocese of Armagh established a seminary in 2012 based in Dundalk, Co. Louth: The Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary. The seventeen seminarians who are studying there are part of the Neocatechumenal Way community and will be ordained as priests of the Archdiocese of Armagh. The Neocatechumenal Way is a pseudo-Catholic organisation that teaches Lutheran doctrines and has closed liturgies which have split parishes around the world. Indeed, they have been expelled from many dioceses due to their cult-like behaviour and heterodox teaching. Unfortunately, this is presented in a positive light here in Ireland.
The Diocese of Limerick has gone in another direction. In 2016, it held a synod which was described as follows:
The synod was a three-day gathering of 400 delegates — 300 lay and 60% female — in Limerick after an 18-month listening process that engaged with over 5,000 people across the diocese. Some 97 proposals across six themes that covered the biggest issues for the Church were agreed (Irish Examiner, 3 April 2018).
Historically, synods were sporadically held in various dioceses in Ireland in order to correct abuses within a particular diocese or to organise the diocese more efficiently, and involved the clergy, the bishop and few lay people. The synod in Limerick was, thus, a far cry from a true synod and the results* predictable. It called for a more prominent role of the laity in the liturgy and church leadership, the reduction of parishes to social outlets for community organisers, and a focus on the environment as well as other fashionable issues. Under the heading ‘Liturgy and Life’, the plan calls for training to be provided for lay volunteers to lead liturgies when priests are absent. Rather than addressing the root causes of the key issues, this synod recommended adaptation to, and acceptance of, the new direction the diocese has taken.
Due to the serious crisis in vocations, some dioceses have had to resort to importing clergy from other countries. These clerics, however, often bring a refreshing dose of conservatism so desperately needed here. During the so-called ‘same-sex marriage referendum’, a priest of Nigerian nationality, Fr Joseph Okere – who was acting as curate of St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford – preached a homily in which he stated that the marriage referendum was the Devil’s work. Unfortunately, Fr Okere’s superior later apologised for his statements and undermined any good spoken. One member of the diocese complained of this injustice stating,
The priest didn’t say anything that was untrue (if the report was accurate) and he was speaking in the cathedral of the diocese. So why did you feel the need to apologise? You would appear to have internalised the commands of the Church’s oppressors.
As the Gospel warns, ‘if a house be divided against itself, it cannot stand’ (Mark 3:25). Such division within the Church hierarchy is a result of an attempt to please both God and mammon. And if the Church does not rediscover Her supernatural mission, this division and breakdown will only continue to follow the trend of the recent report on the Church in Ireland.
*Pastoral plan of the synod can be read here