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Tuesday 16 July 2019

For heaven's sake, who'd be a priest today?

Their retirement age is 75, they make less than the average wage and loneliness is a growing problem - is it any wonder that the priesthood is ­failing to attract new ­recruits?

Risk of burnout: Fr Chris says priesthood can be all-consuming. Photo: Liam Burke/Press 22
Risk of burnout: Fr Chris says priesthood can be all-consuming. Photo: Liam Burke/Press 22

Sarah Mac Donald

When the BAFTA TV Awards come around in 10 months' time, many are predicting that Sean Bean will be recognised for his portrayal of the troubled priest Fr Michael Kerrigan in the BBC series Broken.

Jimmy McGovern's six-part series portrayed Catholic priesthood in a gritty and humane way and the last episode caused something of a storm on Twitter. Jayne Brownridge's tweet was par for the course: 'Crying my eyes out at the superb, powerful portrayal of Father Michael by #SeanBean #Broken @BBCOne more please.'

Those scenes in which Fr Michael returned to his ramshackle old-fashioned presbytery and grappled with loneliness, personal demons of childhood abuse, tensions within the community, as well as juggling care for his elderly terminally ill mother with the constant demands of ministering to his flock, will have rung true for many priests. An ability to multitask is a prerequisite for any would-be cleric.

Here in Ireland, an ageing cohort find themselves with a greater burden of work and responsibilities than they had when they were younger and more energetic.

A dearth of vocations

Compounding this is the dearth of new blood coming up the ranks ready to shoulder their share of duties. The Towers Watson report produced for the Council of Priests in the archdiocese of Dublin last year predicts a drop of up to 70pc in the number of priests in active ministry by 2030.

While 57pc of the priests currently serving in Dublin are over 60 years of age, this is projected to increase to 75pc by 2030. The report also suggested that the fall in personnel could partially be offset by "making it increasingly attractive to priests who are over 75 to remain involved in some capacity".

"Priesthood in Ireland is not in a good place," according to Redemptorist Fr Tony Flannery. Recent priest gatherings around the country hosted by the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) revealed how many are tired and demoralised and are often trying to deal with isolation and loneliness as well as being overworked. As many as nine priests have died by suicide in Ireland in the last 15 years. A factor pushing these men over the edge is burnout - elderly men, who in any other profession would be long retired, are grappling with complex pastoral situations and constant demands.

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

Struggling with new ideas

Fr Brendan Hoban, a parish priest in Moygownagh, Co Mayo, explains: "Once a priest was monarch of all he surveyed and his word was accepted almost universally by his parishioners. Now people are used to a culture of personal decision-making and have their own opinions and ideas and are prepared to voice them. Priests trained in a different world struggle to deal with consultation, consensus and group decision-making."

Added to this is the "revolution" in attitudes to sexual morality. Many older priests are struggling to minister sensitively in areas such as contraception, divorce and remarriage, and gay partnerships.

Though many would like to retire from active ministry as they pass the age of 70, the fact is most priests don't have a home of their own or a pension plan and they are dependent on their diocese for income and accommodation. That leaves them vulnerable to pressure to postpone their retirement. Last week, Bishop Ray Browne of Kerry acknowledged that priests are giving over the odds, asking: "What other group has a retirement age of 75 or 76?"

According to the ACP, there is a huge discrepancy in priests' basic salaries across the Irish Church's 26 dioceses, ranging from €13,800 to €25,000 a year (average earnings across Ireland are around €37,000). The disparity was shown up by research carried out by the Irish Catholic newspaper last year which found that priests in the diocese of Clogher, which covers parts of south Donegal and into Fermanagh, Tyrone and Monaghan, receive up to €33,960 per year while priests in the neighbouring diocese of Raphoe received just €17,800, though health and car insurance are also covered for Raphoe priests.

An ageing community

Calculating priests' remuneration can be tricky as the basic income a diocese pays does not include fees priests obtain for performing weddings, baptisms and funerals. In some dioceses they also share in certain parish collections.

The ACP has also learned of discrepancies in the provision for pensions with some dioceses deducting the amount of the state pension from a priest's salary when he is 66, even if he is asked to take on extra parishes.

Fr Brendan Hoban believes depression is a growing issue due to the pressure of the extra work a smaller number of priests are expected to do as they get older. There is a greater probability of ill-health as they age, he highlights. Added to this is the negativity towards the Church within the media due to the abuse scandals but also linked to national debates on abortion and faith schools. "A sense of the collapse of the Church is mirrored in the collapse of priests not able to cope, especially as we age."

While loneliness is part of the human condition, Fr Hoban believes priests carry an increased burden of isolation. "Most diocesan priests now live on their own, without the support systems that priests had in the past and many are breaking under the strain with depression a growing problem." There is also a sense among many priests that things have "collapsed on our watch" and "vocations have effectively disappeared" with "few priests coming after us" and the "authority of the Church in free-fall". Some feel a certain responsibility for it, as well as a great sadness that they have given their lives to something and "it's breaking down around us".

An ageing and more fragile priesthood needs as many supports as it can get but it seems even health cover isn't a guaranteed perk of the job. While some dioceses pay for priests' health insurance others opt to pay extra but leave the individual priest to pay for their own insurance "sometimes with disastrous results".

Within the body of clergy, concerns have also been voiced over their lack of rights, civil or canonical, and the need for clear guidelines especially when dealing with a bishop. "Some bishops bully their priests; some make no effort to connect with priests. Some are top-class in the HR department," explains Fr Hoban. It varies from diocese to diocese. But if there was a standard set of rights for priests, this would improve the dynamic between priests and bishops.

Read more: Former €600k-a-year Manchester United player ordained as priest

A lack of support

For Fr Tony Flannery, the "one bright light" is the support and encouragement priests still get from their parishioners. But support for priests, he stresses, is often not evident among the bishops. The bishops in Ireland, he claims, lack leadership and a sense of purpose. "All I can see in our hierarchy is fear, anxiety and a desperate clinging to old ways."

But one Dublin parish priest doesn't hold with the ACP's dire warnings. Fr Joe Mullan is on the committee that pays priests and defends the care of elderly priests in the archdiocese of Dublin as "simply superb". Money from the first collection taken up at Sunday Masses goes towards the care of the diocese's sick and elderly priests.

"At this moment in time if you are over 75, you have a salary and if you are moved into a nursing home, those costs are covered," he says. There is also a nurse available by phone to every priest in the diocese if they wish to discuss a health issue and VHI is paid for too.

But he acknowledges there are serious pitfalls for those who leave the priesthood and refers to the plight of a friend who has just left at the age of 50. "If you leave after 25 years as my friend did, you have neither pension, occupation, professional qualifications or your own home - it is a tough walk. Not many people are starting at 50 to try and make all those things happen."

When I was young I wanted to be a footballer

Chris O'Donnell (43)

Former primary school teacher, Now priest in Limerick

Limerick priest Fr Chris O'Donnell is coordinator of his diocese's youth ministry. This week, he hit the ­headlines when nearly 1,400 young people signed a petition in a bid to prevent him moving to Dublin. They also petitioned the Pope through his Twitter account ­­­ @pontifex appealing to the Pontiff to allow Limerick's ­youngsters #keepourhero.

Forty-three-year-old Fr Chris won't be in Dublin indefinitely. He has been asked by Bishop Brendan Leahy to join a team preparing a school textbook for 6th class students for the next 12 months.

Ordained in 2005, he was a primary school teacher before embarking on studies for the priesthood. Originally from Adare, Co Limerick, he has an older brother and a younger sister.

"When I was young I wanted to be a footballer, I didn't harbour any ambition to be a priest. I taught for three happy years and shared houses with some great friends and loved that experience. But there was some sort of a niggle that I should give priesthood a try. People often think that a vocation is very dramatic; it is not." He was 31 when he was ordained.

The sports-mad cleric admits he would "have reservations" about any young man entering this life because "it is just all-consuming" and because it is "going to be tough and challenging for them".

Softly spoken and looking more like a tech whizz with his mane of strawberry blond hair, hipster beard and winning smile, he admits it is "becoming harder and harder to be there for people" when they request baptisms, weddings and funerals due to the declining number of priests. "The nature of priesthood is it's all-consuming and obviously there is the risk of burnout."

"I see priests who are way older than I am putting themselves on the line time and time again and that is encouraging but you also worry for them."

Asked about the concerns raised with the ACP over priests' low pay and the lack of safety nets in the event of illness, Fr Chris is reluctant to agree. "I would always say that people would kill you with generosity if you let them. There is only me and I have enough to get by - I have never gone short."

He is unclear what his exact salary is, indicating that it is somewhere in the €20-22,000 bracket. "As I see it, for a single person it is fine." But then he has no mortgage to pay and all the ancillary costs.

As to the other challenges for priests today, surprisingly celibacy isn't first on the agenda. "We started out as younger priests thinking it would be the biggest challenge, but it isn't actually. Companionship and loneliness would be factors of varying degrees for people but probably the all-consuming nature of the role is the biggest challenge," he admits.

- SM

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