Sunday 24 September 2017

We live perfectly well. I have never seen a hungry priest

Joe Mullan (56); Parish priest in Rathgar, Dublin

Fr Joe Mullen, parish priest at Church of the Three Patrons, Rathgar Rd. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
Fr Joe Mullen, parish priest at Church of the Three Patrons, Rathgar Rd. Photo: Douglas O'Connor

Sarah Mac Donald

Fr Joe Mullan is relieved he isn't on the move from his ­parish in Dublin's leafy Rathgar. A priest's lot means he can be moved at short notice at the whim of his bishop. There was a time when you were parish priest for life, not any more.

"It did affect me this time last year because I had finished six years [in Rathgar] but I was given the possibility of an extension. It can be an absolutely gut-wrenching experience for priests," the 56-year-old parish priest explains.

Ordained 31 years ago, he went into Clonliffe College seminary just after Pope John Paul II's visit in 1979 and was ordained in 1986.

Over his three decades of priesthood, he has moved 'house' eight times, including four years while he studied communications and youth pastoral theology in London. "I have plenty of experience of moving. The really demanding moves for me were the two times I moved from a parish - firstly when I left Iona Road after seven years and then Lusk after four years."

The son of a Co Down dentist, he is one of seven children. Boarding school at Castleknock College led him to join the priesthood in Dublin.

Asked about concerns raised at the ACP meetings over the financial well-being of priests, he explains that his salary as a Dublin priest is €24,500.

"It is not big money, we would never be able to afford a mortgage on our salary. Somebody told me the other day that their mortgage was €1,600. We earn €2,000 a month gross so you can neither afford to buy a property or to have a pension but it is more than adequate for our day-to-day living."

Though many look enviously at priests who live mortgage-free, this leaves them "dependent" on their diocese because they live and work in the presbytery. But Fr Joe emphasises: "We live perfectly well. I have never seen a hungry priest and I've never been hungry as a priest."

As a member of the Dublin finance committee overseeing priests' payment, he says one of the concerns priests have is their reliance on the people who come to Mass to financially sustain the salaries of priests in ministry and the retired priests of the diocese.

"As Mass numbers go down, the money also drops. We used to have €20m a year to support the priests of Dublin, now we have less than €10m. But it also takes less money to look after fewer priests - there used to be 1,000 priests in Dublin, now there is less than half that number."

Challenges

As to concerns about priests' ability to cope with loneliness and the number of priest suicides, he believes that as with any profession "we are challenged to maintain a healthy psychological and emotional life. If you are the type of person who can join your energy to the people who share what you do, there is support. But there are those who are more anti-social, people who didn't really do the group thing; that is to do with personality and just the way people are". They are more vulnerable to loneliness and isolation.

Referring to the stark findings of last year's Towers Watson report on the decline of priest numbers in Dublin, he acknowledges: "When you look at the facts and statistics, it looks pretty miserable."

But he stresses: "We can't change what Towers Watson is telling us but we can all choose how to live inside it, and to live inside it with as much heart as we possibly can. We know we will become fragile and vulnerable as we age but people have an amazing capacity to surround that with help and care and assistance."

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