A seminary closes and country has first ‘priestless parish’

DUBLIN, Ireland—One of Ireland's six diocesan seminaries has stopped accepting students for the priesthood this year because of the shortage of vocations. St. Peter's College in Wexford trained priests for the Ferns diocese for nearly 180 years, but this year it will no longer accept students for the priesthood because numbers are so small that the Bishop Brendan Comiskey believes it no longer provides “a healthy environment for academic studies and personal formation.”

He added: “A seminary with very small numbers runs the risk of becoming too inward-looking, thus depriving the student of exposure to a wider and richer experience of society and the Church.”

The eight students studying at the college are to be transferred to seminaries elsewhere in Ireland and abroad. Until recently, St. Peter's had been attracting students from across the country because of the popularity of its Bishop Comiskey, who enjoyed a high media profile. But following his sudden disappearance from his diocese three years ago, when he traveled to the United States for treatment for alcoholism, Bishop Comiskey has rarely appeared in the media, a factor which may have reduced student numbers in Ferns.

But vocations are falling across all of Ireland. A survey by this journalist last year found that the Irish Church is losing diocesan priests through retirement, ill health, and voluntary departure at twice the rate that new seminarians are being recruited.

The Dublin Archdiocese had no seminary entrants last year — the first time ever in the history of Holy Cross College. Following an expensive newspaper and billboard advertising campaign, featuring the slogan, “Who are the men in black?,” Dublin got three new seminary entrants this year — a figure which is “quite good these days” said archdiocesan press officer Father John Dardis. Twenty years ago, Holy Cross College was taking in 12 students a year.

The shortage of vocations is particularly affecting dioceses in the West of Ireland. This year Kerry, Killaloe, Tuam, Killala, Elphin, and Raphoe dioceses had no new candidates for the diocesan priesthood. The shortage of vocations is affecting female religious orders too: earlier this year, the Association of Primary Teaching Sisters predicted that there will be no religious in Irish primary education by the year 2020. While, Ireland still enjoys a higher number of priests per head of population than anywhere else in the world with one serving priest for every 1,272 Catholics, Ireland needs more priests than most countries because Sunday observance remains high with 60% of the population attending Mass on a weekly basis.

The shortage of priests has already had one dramatic effect on Killanena, in the Diocese of Killaloe, which last month became Ireland's first “priestless parish.” While outside priests will visit the parish to celebrate Masses and make pastoral visits, Killanena no longer has a resident priest. The “shortage of priests” was the reason given by Bishop Willie Walsh for the development. While the busy town of Ennis has six priests, he does not see the need for a permanent priest in Killanena, which has a population of only 500.

The parish meeting where the change was announced was heated with angry scenes and Bishop Walsh admitted: “People expressed quite strongly their disappointment and hurt in being without a resident priest, but the fact that half the parish turned up to the meeting is quite a healthy sign. I chose this route rather than parish amalgamation. Killanena still exists as an independent parish and we are trying to begin the process of people taking full responsibility for their parishes.” In the Kerry Diocese, Bishop Bill Murphy has warned his flock that some churches may lose their Sunday Masses. “Thirty years ago you would have had a parish priest, a curate, and a junior priest in a typical parish,” he said.

“You would have had 11 parishes which traditionally would have had only one priest, now I have 31 one-priest parishes. The main problem we are facing is not that we have too few priests, but that we have too many Masses at the weekend. There are parishes with 800 people, three churches, five Masses, and one priest. Instead of uniting people, we are splitting people up. It goes against the idea of ecclesia and the people of God assembling together as one.”

“The problem dates back to the 1950s when a lot of churches were built when there was no transport. I don't envisage closing churches — people are very attached to them — but the number of Masses may be cut.”

“This is not a major problem and, for example, if I had 10 extra priests I would not put them into parishes; the need in pastoral services like youth out-reach is much greater. At present, I don't see priestless parishes happening in Kerry in my lifetime. We are not going to be like Kenya where one parish will have 28 or 30 outstations with a priest getting around to them once a month. Ireland is a small country and transport is good, but we may see smaller parishes united with one priest serving them both.”

Bishop Walsh believes that “in the fairly near future” his flock will have to face the prospect of not having a Sunday Mass at their nearest church. Already he has introduced a rule where none of his priests may celebrate more than three Sunday Masses at the weekend — one vigil Mass and two on Sundays.

He said: “It is bad for a priest's own spiritual life to do more than that. People have difficulty acknowledging that, they say ‘10 Masses is only eight hours a week,’ but a priest needs preparation if there is going to be a worthwhile liturgy.”

There are no formal plans in the Meath Diocese to cut Masses, but there is talk of doing that among diocesan priests, said Father Declan Hurly. He added: “There is already an understanding that there will be only two vigil Masses per parish and two Masses on Sunday, though some priests celebrate three Sunday Masses. We do have a high proportion of parishes with three churches and one priest — when the churches were being built at the start of the century the rule of thumb was that no one should be more than half an hour's walk from their nearest church. Now very few people walk to Mass; they travel by car.”

In the Tuam Archdiocese, the diocesan secretary, Father Brendan Kilcoyne, said he believes English bishops, who depended on Irish seminaries for their manpower, will “feel the pinch first.” He added: “We are helped by the fact that several missionaries who were overseas have returned to finish their last five or 10 years of service at home. Sooner or later we will have to address the problem, but priestless parishes are a long way down the road.” However, the news isn't all bad. The Down and Connor diocese, the second most populous in Ireland, is continuing to attract about three new vocations a year. There the number of single-priest parishes is increasing. But, says diocesan chancellor Msgr. Colm McCaughan, this is not because of a shortage of vocations. “We have a growing Catholic population and we are splitting parishes to form new ones.”

Cian Molloy writes from Dublin, Ireland.