The Greying of the Clergy

(The Nationalist, 05 May 2006)


The number of priests and members of religious orders in Ireland has dropped by half since 1970. The average age of priests has risen substantially in that time; it is now about 68. Add to that problems of health and morale, and you have a serious difficulty with staffing, to name just one. A parish near me in Belfast had three priests in 2001; by autumn of this year it will have one. Another, larger one, which had four priests in 2001, now has two, both in their seventies and with significant health problems. My own order has twelve communities in Ireland. We have lost the equivalent of one community through death in the last twelve months. The volume of work has not grown less; if anything the contrary is true, but the numbers available to do it have declined. Statistics and anecdotal evidence could be multiplied, but it is unnecessary.

This situation did not develop overnight. A substantial decline in vocations began as far back as thirty years ago. There was no shortage of voices calling for action, for a review of the way that we are church, for the training and empowerment of lay-people, for the creation of structures of dialogue, participation, and subsidiarity. In response, some wagged a finger in reproof, saying, ‘God will provide’. That was to evade the issue, and the decline continued. Regrettably, little of the above was done. A crash landing, therefore, seems more likely than a soft one. If you don’t learn lessons the easy way, you are taught the hard way. If you don’t take the imitative, you will be boxed into a corner by circumstances beyond your control, and with no room for manoeuvre. If you don’t reform, you precipitate a revolution – or a collapse.

Perhaps it is providential. The model of church – that is to say, the particular way of being the church – we have lived with in Europe for centuries is on its last legs and, most likely, will collapse.

What will follow? It is impossible to know, and speculation about the future usually gets it wrong. What may emerge will be a new model of church, more democratic and less hierarchical, more charismatic and less structured, more lay and less clerical, smaller and less concerned with numbers. Out of that, a new understanding of the Christian faith may also emerge. In much of the world, the Catholic Church turned the faith into a control system. That was to repeat the Pharisees’ mistake, and to miss the point that Jesus was trying to free people from that. If the faith is seen as prophetic and motivating, focusing on relationships, enabling people to realize their humanity, it will be true to itself and be welcomed. Otherwise, it will wither, and have to await a better day. We live in interesting times.


For those in a hurry: ‘The prudence that consists only in following the prudence of another is an imperfect prudence’. (Saint Thomas Aquinas)