My historical sense of catholicism in Ireland, which I learned in school, was speckled with events that were depicted as reference points in Irish history. The Wild Geese, Cromwell, Fr Murphy of Boolavogue, Nano Nagle, Daniel O’Connell and Catholic Emancipation, the Great Famine and the soupers, the War of Independence, the Maynooth Mission to China, male and female Irish missionaries across the globe in the twentieth century, and may more markers.

Many of these mark crossroads in the history of Christianity and Catholicism in Ireland. But now — and this may be because I’m in the middle of it — I believe they may be relatively less significant when compared with the cataclysmic changes taking place in the shape of Irish Catholicism today. Most of the changes are rapid and nationwide. Among them: religious brothers have almost gone; the remaining religious sisters (nuns) are almost all retired and aged; the combination of these has led to the transition in education and nursing to an almost completely lay workforce. Missionary brothers, sisters and priests who are Irish born are declining rapidly — so much so that several of the missionary societies have moved their headquarters from Ireland to their mission fields in the third world.

People may not be as aware of it but the disappearance of Catholic publications in Ireland is also a phenomenon of our times. The failure of the Catholic Church leadership to recognise the enormous impact of mass media as agenda setting influences and as builders of cultural foundations led to neglect of the proprietary media organs which church organisations owned and an eventual failure to engage with a changed culture. Religious publishing in Ireland was for the most part left to the religious orders. The Sacred Heart Messenger (published by the Irish Jesuits) is a case in point. During the Second Vatican Council (1960s) its average circulation was 240,000 copies. By 1994, this had dropped to just over 150,000. By 2017, the circulation is down to 60,000 – or a quarter of what it was in the 1960s. This writer was the last editor of the magazine of the Diocese of Cork and Ross which was published between 1953 and 2003. The Fold was an initiative of Bishop Cornelius Lucey who launched the magazine essentially to support a major church building programme and later a missionary outreach to South America. All through its life, it was intended to be self-financing and had neither full-time nor paid staff.

As radio and television increased their share of the Irish media presence, The Irish Church faced a fork in the cultural road: a choice of engaging in dialogue with the evolving media without needing to control the outcomes, or to seek to control content and have its voice heard but ring-fenced. The Irish Catholic Church didn’t invest any resources in training its personnel or students in media education or skills (with which they could later contribute to programming and dialogue). Instead, the Church made very small moves to be content creators which they would produce, edit and sell — and with an expectation that the mass media would broadcast these packaged programmes. The earliest products were from Radharc – which produced documentaries for broadcast on TV. The later Catholic Press and Information Office produced written statements which were intended rot be published verbatim on behalf of the bishops. The dawn of local radio stations saw 30-minute slots being assigned to a ‘religion slot’ which was edited and presented by religious for the most part. The presence of a ‘Catholic voice’ on mainstream radio or television programming was often in the light entertainment slot, which notable names soon began to dominate.

In recent years, the Church has abandoned the value of prepared programmes and few broadcast outlets are willing to take them or else they are assigned to time slots when audiences are negligible. The limited commitment the Church has to its own media has seen these reduced to being essentially printed or typed megaphones! A magazine like Intercom has been strangled because of conflict over its editorial functions and formula. The Bishops want it to print what they want to say and the editors have wanted it to meet the needs of the readers and provide a forum to tease out challenges in today’s church. Diverse missions and one dead publication.

All of these issues have a bearing on the fate of Irish Catholicism but none have the same impact as the fact that the diocesan priesthood is ebbing out of sight in Ireland. Most of the key interactions between Catholics and the institutions of the Church in Ireland involve a priest who was ordained to serve in his local diocese — in parishes, schools and hospitals. Most Irish people have been baptised by, received First Communion from, been married by, and been anointed by a priest who is a diocesan priest serving in one of Ireland’s 26 diocese. They are the priests who presided at Station Masses, managed local schools in parishes, visited the sick and dying in their homes and ministered to the bereaved at funerals.

But they are about to disappear.

And the story only varies slightly from one part of the country to another. But, take a look at a simple set of data from our own Diocese of Cork and Ross.

Table showing the number of non-retired priests of the Diocese between 1990 and 2017.

The direction is clear! Every nine years for the past 27 years has seen a similar decline in the number of priests who are serving in the diocese. The breakdown of where they are assigned varies. In 2001, for example, 103 of the 133 were ministering in the parishes of the dioceses. Six were in administrative roles in the diocese, sever were in schools and four in chaplaincy roles. There were 13 diocesan priests based outside the diocese — mostly on the South American Mission.
Today, we have just 84 diocesan priests who are not retired. Of these, 70 are parish based but five are over 75 years and still serving. There are four diocesan priests serving outside the diocese (three in Maynooth), two in administrative roles and eight as chaplains to hospitals and schools.
The diocese has 68 parishes. However, recent changes have seen several left without a resident priest and the community is ministered to by a priest based in a neighbouring parish. These include Goleen, Baltimore, Blackpool and Sunday’s Well. And at least six more parishes are being served by a sole rest who is 75 years or more.
The decline of the number of priests serving in the diocese is veiled slightly by the presence in the diocese of priests who were ordained for religious orders of missionary societies and have either returned home or have been loaned to the diocese. We currently have 14 such priests serving in our parishes and a further eight hold chaplaincy posts in the diocese. However, their age profile is similar to the diocesan clergy. Hence, two orders who has pastoral care of two parishes recently withdrew from this commitment. (Gurranabraher was staffed by Capuchin Friars and Sunday’s Well was a Vincentian order parish.)
The age profile of the priests currently serving in our diocese will add to the rate of change in the current decade. There are five of the 84 diocesan priests who are aged under 40.
Given this picture, it is reasonable to predict that by 2025 the diocesan priesthood in Cork & Ross will be almost extinct. The average drop in numbers every nine years since 1990 has been 30. And this was when entrants to seminary were more than they are now. There is no reason to assume that the number will not decline by a further 30 in the next nine years (we know how many new priests we will have over the next seven years or so — four at most).
So by 2026, we will most likely have a total of 57 elderly diocesan priests in Cork and Ross Diocese.
So my headline may be justified after all.