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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Life and Style
Emoji are rapidly becoming the language of the internet
techWhy internet acronyms are being driven out by emoji
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before