"So it is understandable that parishioners are anxious about the future of the parishes, and especially about their independence."

It’s said that the GAA and the Catholic Church have a lot in common. Some commentators have noted similarities between the recent difficulties concerning hurling in Cork and the struggles of the Catholic Church to cope with change. There probably are some interesting parallels in how change, crisis, leadership, control and planning play out in both. However, there is a major difference, too. As the current panel of priests serving the parishes diminishes, there is no reserve panel in place.

A wide-ranging discussion took place recently at a meeting of parish representatives that I was facilitating with work colleagues. It was one of a series of meetings with members of parish finance committees, parish assemblies and parish pastoral councils from the parishes. We were discussing ways of setting up cross-parish groups to help plan for the future of the parishes of the diocese. At one of the meetings, the discussion centred heavily on what needs to be done to help ensure that there might be enough priests in the diocese to minister to the parishes. This discussion was against a background of knowing that for many of the parishes, the one priest they now have may well be the last to minister fulltime in that parish. Another GAA thought floated in: It’s very difficult to discuss a club’s future development if it can’t field an under-age team right now!

So it is understandable that parishioners are anxious about the future of the parishes, and especially about their independence. They are aware that the independence of parishes may be weakened by the scarcity of priests. They are keen to discuss the reality as it is now and to see what can be done. There is no doubt about the commitment of parishioners who give of their time, energy, ideas and skills to their parishes (and to the Lord) in joining the various groups that are emerging to help steer the future development of parishes. The trends as they have been emerging are also very clear. The extent of the changes in the number of priests serving in the diocese (and all across Ireland) has been gradual but unrelenting in recent decades. And it’s set to continue.

A glance at some of the figures tells its own story. In 1990, there were 175 priests of the Cork and Ross Diocese available for service in the diocese. At the time of writing in 2009, the equivalent number is 110. These numbers include all the priests who were ordained to serve the local diocese and who hold appointments from the bishop. It includes a small number who minister outside the diocese (two in Maynooth, for example). During this nineteen-year period, the decrease is over thirty-seven percent. In other words, for every three priests who were in service then, there are less than two now.

Between 1990 and 1999 there were 18 ordinations; in the following ten years between 2000 and 2009, the number is five (including one due to take place later this year). The rapid drop in the number of ordinations accounts for part of the difference in the number of priests in the period. However, in the same period, 67 priests died, including 29 who died while holding appointments. A further 28 priests retired in that time (the canonical age for retirement from being parish priest is 75) and another 29 priests discontinued ministry for various reasons, including those who resigned the ministry to follow another vocation and those who discontinued ministry because of health reasons. This means that the number of priests ordained in the past twenty years has been less than the number of priests who died while in active service.

These numbers only illustrate one dimension of the clergy shortage problem. The age profile of the priests is an equally pressing issue. We now have several parishes in the diocese ministered to by sole priests who are several years beyond retirement age (75). Their generous dedication is postponing the day when parishes will have to share a priest with another parish. Overall, the average age of priests in the diocese is now close to 60 years. The increased involvement of lay parishioners in the life of the parishes is a valuable support to priests whose workload is increasing and it is also an important step in developing ways of sustaining parishes into the future.

Bishop Buckley has repeatedly voiced a concern that rests in the heart of most of us: priests are essential to the life of the Church – in parishes, in hospitals, schools, missions and many other places of ministry. Promoting vocations to priesthood is, therefore, a challenge and responsibility for all the baptised. The priests of the future will be working much more in partnership with parishioners in sustaining and developing the local church. However, if the current trend of priest availability is allowed to continue, very dramatic changes to the local church are inevitable in the not-too-distant future.

(This article was publishes a column in the Southern Star newspaper in April 2009.)