Mon, Jul 12, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Once an exporter of priests, Ireland now has too few

PARISHES CLOSING Ireland has shed much of its religious devotion, and its newfound wealth as an EU country has accelerated this exodus from the pews

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LIMERICK, IRELAND

For centuries, Ireland mass-produced Roman Catholic priests, ordaining and exporting them at so steady a clip that the Mass in the US seemed forever cast in a thick Irish brogue.

Now, with that religious heyday long gone, Ireland finds itself facing a serious shortage of priests. The problem is expected to grow significantly worse in the next decade as more older priests retire, abandon the priesthood or die, and too few men prepare to replace them.

Only eight Roman Catholic clerical students are expected to be ordained this year in all of Ireland, compared with 193 ordinations in 1990. The Diocese of Dublin, the largest in the country, has planned no ordinations for next year, and the Diocese of Limerick, a hardscrabble city on the banks of the Shannon River, is expected to ordain one man soon, and then wait years for its next priest.

With Ireland joining the ranks of the wealthy in Europe, interest in joining the priesthood or religious orders is at a low point. In 1970, 750 people were seeking to become priests, brothers and nuns. Last year, the number was 39. All but one seminary in Ireland have closed.

In all, Ireland has 3,238 diocesan priests, not including priests in religious orders, down 500 since 1981. Their average age is 60, which means most will retire in the next 10 to 15 years.

For the first time, not enough priests are in Ireland -- a country forged in Catholicism -- for all its churches and rituals, and that is changing the way people worship and the way the Catholic church operates here.

The country is confronting the notion of fewer Masses and priestless parishes; Banogue, a small, rural parish in Limerick, was among the first to lose its full-time priest, a milestone that shocked parishioners and sent a warning signal rippling across Ireland. A priest now visits from another parish.

Other priests fill in where needed in addition to their regular duties.

"I just feel exhausted," said the Reverend Seamus Madigan, a chaplain at Castleroy College, a high school in Limerick, who hopscotches from his school job to celebrate Masses, officiate at weddings and funerals, and carry out an assortment of other priestly functions in the area.

The reasons for the scarcity are varied, but not unfamiliar. Like other Catholic countries in Europe, Ireland has shed much of its religious devotion for more secular pastimes. Its newfound wealth as a EU country has only accelerated this exodus from the pews. What is more, Ireland's Roman Catholic Church establishment -- not to mention its older parishioners -- was badly shaken by the abuse scandals involving Irish priests and nuns.

Changing sexual mores also have had a profound effect. Today, even churchgoing Irish mothers, who once proudly steered their sons into the priesthood, are reluctant to encourage their sons to take that path.

"There tends to be an assumption on the part of people that priests are lonely, and that it is impossible to live happily if you are not engaged in a sexual relationship," said the Reverend Kevin Doran, Ireland's national coordinator for vocations. "It's part of the way the culture has developed. We have become a highly sexualized culture."

To stave off closing parishes, Limerick has put into operation a plan to cluster its 60 parishes into 13 groups, to allow parishes to communicate with one another and pool their resources, both lay and clerical.

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