Why Ireland Is Running Out of Priests

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Niall Carson / PA Wire

The ordaining of three new priests

Wanted: clean-living young men for a long career. Women need not apply. Responsibilities: spiritual guidance, visiting the sick, public relations, marriages (own marriage not permitted). Hours: on call 24/7. Salary: basic stipend only.

Father Patrick Rushe, coordinator of vocations for the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, hasn't placed classified ads yet, but he's done just about everything else to attract young men to the priesthood. So far, though, the call to service seems to be falling on deaf ears.

Last month, the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, made a grim prediction: if more young priests aren't found quickly, Ireland's parishes may not have enough clergy to survive. Martin's own diocese is a case in point — it has 46 priests aged 80 or over, but only two under 35. It's a similar story all over the island. According to a 2007 study, about half of all priests in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland are aged between 55 and 74.

That's a problem. The ordination of a family member was once regarded as a moment of great prestige in Ireland, especially in rural areas. As recently as 1990, more than 80% of Irish people said they attended Mass at least once a week. But the country's relationship with the church began to change dramatically in the mid-1990s. When Ireland's economy took off, disaffection replaced devotion among young people. The priest sex-abuse scandals didn't help. Criticism over the handling of the case of Father Brendan Smyth — a priest who sexually abused children for more than 40 years — even led to the collapse of the Irish government in 1994, when Prime Minister Albert Reynolds delayed extraditing Smyth to Northern Ireland to face child-abuse charges.

Public anger has deepened since then. Last May, the government published the findings of a nine-year inquiry into child abuse at Catholic schools, orphanages and hospitals from the 1930s to the 1990s. The report, which described "endemic sexual abuse" at boys' schools, shook Ireland to its core and left the reputation of the religious orders that ran the institutions in tatters. Then, on Nov. 26, another government inquiry found that the church and police colluded to cover up child sex-abuse cases in the Dublin archdiocese from 1975 to 2004, prompting the head of the Irish church, Cardinal Sean Brady, to apologize. "No one is above the law in this country," he said.

Inevitably, the scandals have made it harder to attract new men. Father Brian D'Arcy, superior of the Passionist Monastery in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, says the only way to reverse the trend may be to relax long-standing rules. "Of course it would be a big help if priests were allowed to marry or if we could ordain married men," he says. "Good men are being driven out by foolish [rules]." [rules]," D'Arcy says.

But some clerical leaders say that allowing married or female clergy won't solve the problem. "They're easy solutions on paper but the crisis is deeper," says Rushe, who points out that the Anglican Church, which permits both married and female clergy, is also facing a shortage of new blood: "[Becoming a priest] is a lifetime commitment and a sacrifice. I think that's what's putting people off."

In 2008, the church tried a different solution: a year-long recruitment drive. The initiative seems to have paid off, at least for now. In September, 38 Irish men began studying for the priesthood at seminaries in Ireland and Italy. That figure may pale in comparison to the 100 or so new seminarians who signed up annually in the 1960s, but it was the highest intake in a decade. "You're not just going to pull somebody off the street and they'll suddenly become a priest," Rushe says. "It's a decision that can take a long time to make."

Vincent Cushnahan, 29, currently the youngest diocesan priest in Ireland, knows how hard the decision can be. "I had to forsake married life, my own house, money," he says. "[Being a priest] can be more isolating and countercultural than it has been in the past. It's more challenging, but also more rewarding because of that."