Priest shortage threatens vital work of chaplains
For more than half a century, the Irish abroad could be sure that in times of dire need, they could call on an Irish-born chaplain in a foreign land.
But the chronic shortage of priests at home means that the foreign legion of Irish-born priests ministering to the diaspora may be coming to an end.
Irish clerics have spent almost 60 years tending to the spiritual and practical needs of Irish emigrants, but there are now only three Irish-born priests working full-time in foreign chaplaincies around the globe: two in the US and one in London.
And even their days are numbered, according to Fr Alan Hilliard, former director of the Irish Bishops Council for Emigrants and the current chaplain at DIT.
"We've been recruiting for years, but it looks like it could well be the end of an era," he told the Sunday Independent.
It was Archbishop John Charles McQuaid who established the first Irish Chaplaincy Scheme in Manchester in 1957 to cater for the wave of Irish emigrants who crossed the Irish Sea during the mass emigration of the early 1950s.
It was followed by similar chaplaincies in America during the second mass wave of Irish emigration during the 1980s. The role of chaplains in the UK was initially religious, but the dire living and working conditions that many Irish emigrant labourers found themselves in prompted chaplains to act as advocates and go-betweens for those who couldn't speak on their own behalf.
As a young cleric, Eamon Casey was among those priests who highlighted the living and working conditions of the Irish in Britain. At a time when many Irish emigrants were greeted with 'No Blacks, No Dogs and No Irish' signs in windows, and suffered unprovoked physical and verbal abuse during The Troubles, it often fell to the emigrant chaplains to campaign for their rights.
Two members of the chaplaincy, Fr Raymond Murray and Fr Denis Faul, were instrumental in bringing justice for the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. And a decade later, when HIV/AIDS ravaged the gay community in the 1980s, emigrant chaplains became the "go-to" people for support while they ministered to the disenfranchised and homeless, as well as prisoners, Travellers, and the lonely and homesick.
In the words of Senator David Norris during a Seanad debate on emigration in 1997, their work is "unpopular, unpaid and unseen".
The recent tragedy in Berkeley, California, in which six young people died, illustrated the vital role that Fr Brendan McBride, chaplain at the Irish Immigration Pastoral Centre in San Francisco, played in supporting the victims' families through their ordeal. The Co Donegal native and his staff were among the first to respond to the tragedy at the Library Gardens student-housing complex when the balcony the students were standing on collapsed during a party last month.
Fr McBride also helped provide comfort and solace immediately afterwards to some of the students who witnessed the tragedy.
He also made headlines earlier this year when his close friend, professional golfer and Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley, had his golf clubs and other mementos stolen shortly after the pair met up in San Francisco in February.
The Dublin golf legend had donated the memorabilia in a charity auction for the centre and was having lunch with Fr McBride near the Golden Gate Bridge when thieves broke into his SUV and made off with the clubs that were in the back seat.
Fr McBride, who officiated at Mr McGinley's wedding and the baptism of his three children, ended up doing what he has done for countless other Irish visitors in need of assistance: he helped McGinley sort out a new passport and other items that were stolen during the break-in.
Yet, despite the good work of the chaplaincies, the Catholic Church in Ireland is struggling to maintain current services as it is and simply can't afford to send priests overseas, Fr Hilliard said.
"I think that day is coming to an end and one day it will be over. When it's gone, people will look back and say 'wasn't that great'," he said.
Fr Adrian Egan, a member of the Association of Catholic Priests, also lamented the "huge decline of vocation" that is forcing bishops to think twice about sending priests abroad. "It would be a shame to see it end. The tragedy in Berkeley showed how important it is, but also in places like New York City where chaplaincies act as a meeting point and provide a very important service to people who may feel lost and alone," he said.