Ireland's sons turn their backs on the priesthood

The number of priestly ordinations in Ireland has dipped below England and Wales for the first time in living memory, new figures reveal.

The recruitment crisis is a clear indication of how low the church has sunk in a country that once used to export Catholic missionaries to all corners of the globe and often provided Britain with a significant proportion of its priests.

According to new figures released by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Ireland, just 16 men are due to start training for the priesthood this autumn, less than half the 39 that signed up for the priesthood last year. In the 1980s Ireland would regularly draw more than 150 new recruits to the priesthood every year.

The latest figures for England and Wales have yet to be released but church officials are confident they will see an increase on the 43 men who put themselves forward for the priesthood in 2009.

The difficulty in attracting young recruits is a problem that is afflicting vast swathes of the Catholic Church, particularly in secular, developed nations. But Ireland’s recruitment problems will cause concern in Rome because it had always been regarded by the Vatican as a bastion of Catholic mission in the heart of secular Europe.

The Irish church’s reputation has been battered in the past five years by numerous sexual abuse scandals and repeated revelations that senior church officials deliberately covered up the crimes of paedophiles priests.

According to The Tablet, which obtained the new figures, there are just 99 men training for priesthood in Irish seminaries compared with 150 in England and Wales.

Fr Patrick Rushe, National Coordinator of Diocesan Vocations Directors in Ireland, said that the recent stories of sexual-abuse scandals had had a negative effect on recruiting.

“The recent difficulties with Church scandals mean that those thinking tentatively about priesthood... are not going to be launching themselves forward,” he told The Tablet. “This has been a difficult year for the Church and is bound to have an effect [on numbers].”

Fr Rushe suggested that the numbers this year were a “blip” and should return to a more steady level of 25 or 26 new vocations in the years to come.

In comparison, the church in England and Wales has seen numbers of new seminarians remain close to 40 for much of the past five years.

Unless Ireland finds a way to begin recruiting young men, the number of priests is expected to fall from 4,700 to just 1,500 by 2028.

The biggest problem the church faces is the lack of new recruits to replace older priests that die or retire. The average age for a priest in Ireland in currently 63 whilst clergymen over the age of 70 currently outnumber those under 40 by ten to one.

The true extent of the crisis was laid bare in 2008 when the Irish church admitted that 160 priests had died that year with only nine new ordinations.

Figures for nuns were even more dramatic, with the deaths of 228 nuns and only two taking final vows for service in religious life.

Similar shortages of priests have occurred across the Atlantic in the United States, where the church has also found itself mired in numerous paedophile scandals. Forty years ago there was one priest for every 772 American Catholics, now it is one per 1,603. In 1970, there were 8,000 students in US seminaries, today it is around 1,300.

But even staunchly Catholic countries like Poland – which underwent a religious revival following the collapse of Communism – are struggling to recruit new clergy members. Earlier this year the Conference of the Polish Episcopate announced that only 687 men enrolled in seminaries, a 30 per cent drop on the figure from 10 years ago.

The number of women joining religious orders has also declined, with only 354 joining last year, a drop of 50 per cent since 2002.

The number of priests in England, Wales and Scotland is currently hovering around the 4,400 mark – the equivalent of one priest for every 1,140 churchgoing Catholic, close to Ireland’s figure of one priest for every 1,200 church goers. In places like Brazil, the priest per capita level is 1:20,000.