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Mission-critical: Meet the Asian, African and Romanian priests flown in to rescue the Catholic Church in Ireland

The big read: Amid dwindling ordinations, many Irish parishes have reached out to Africa, Asia and Europe for reinforcements. But what are the cultural challenges for the 'imported' priests?

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High five: Little Glen Johnston greets Fr Nicholas Maanzo as he arrives at Mass in St Joseph's Church, Monaghan on Sunday morning. Photo by Lorraine Teevan

High five: Little Glen Johnston greets Fr Nicholas Maanzo as he arrives at Mass in St Joseph's Church, Monaghan on Sunday morning. Photo by Lorraine Teevan

High five: Little Glen Johnston greets Fr Nicholas Maanzo as he arrives at Mass in St Joseph's Church, Monaghan on Sunday morning. Photo by Lorraine Teevan

'Who will break the bread for us?' is the title of Fr Brendan Hoban's reflection on the decline in priest numbers and the implications for the Irish Catholic Church.

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The Co Mayo priest has warned for many years that priests in Ireland are disappearing and that something radical needs to be done about it. Otherwise a "Eucharistic famine" will prevail, because "without priests we have no Mass and without Mass we have no Church."

For most of the 20th century, the Irish Church had well stocked seminaries and could afford to send, not just missionary priests, but also diocesan ones, overseas to serve where clerics were not as plentiful. However, the steep decline in vocations in recent decades has caused some observers to predict that in less than 20 years, Ireland will be "effectively priestless".

In 1984, there were 171 ordinations in Ireland. This contrasts with 2018, when the Diocese of Kerry celebrated its first ordination in 11 years. Fr Sean Jones was one of six ordinations that year for six dioceses. In 2016, the Towers Watson report produced for the Council of Priests in the archdiocese of Dublin predicted a drop of up to 70pc in the number of priests in active ministry by 2030. Some 57pc of the priests currently serving in Dublin's 200 parishes are over 60 years of age and this is projected to increase to 75pc by 2030.

Proposals put forward in the Towers Watson report to counter the drastic drop in personnel include a reduction in the number of Masses on offer, allocating more work to permanent deacons and lay volunteers, "making it increasingly attractive to priests who are over 75 to remain involved in some capacity" and recruiting priests from overseas.

A number of Irish dioceses have already reached out to the Church in Africa and Asia and invited priests to come and serve in their parishes in a bid to counter the collapse in priest numbers locally. There is no national strategy on inviting priests from overseas to serve in Ireland, it is up to individual bishops. Some have embraced the strategy enthusiastically while others continue to wait and see, as opinion is still divided on the merits of "importing" priests.

A spokesperson for Dublin, the country's largest diocese, said it has not established a formal relationship with any particular diocese outside Ireland to invite priests to serve here. The priests from abroad who are currently serving in Dublin have come on a case-by-case basis. At the moment there are 29 priests in ministry in Dublin from Asia (India and China), Africa (Nigeria, Uganda and Tanzania) and from Europe (Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Croatia and Romania). Twelve of them are here primarily for studies and another 17 are available for full-time ministry.

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Fr. Ciprian Matei from St Peter and Paul Church in Portlaoise.
Pic Steve Humphreys
5th February 2020

Fr. Ciprian Matei from St Peter and Paul Church in Portlaoise. Pic Steve Humphreys 5th February 2020

"Some of these priests are here by arrangement of the archdiocese to serve the different ritual and ethnic chaplaincies in Dublin," the spokesperson explained. But these figures do not include non-Irish nationals from religious congregations who are serving in diocesan appointments, nor does it include non-Irish who are helping ethnic groups who meet in parishes administered by religious congregations.

The overall number of priests from overseas working on the ground in Dublin parishes is therefore much higher.

One diocese which has sought to shore up its priest numbers and maintain all its parishes by inviting priests to come in from abroad is Kildare and Leighlin. Bishop Denis Nulty had fostered a relationship with the Catholic Church in Romania which has resulted in three young priests coming to his diocese.

In Newbridge, Fr Eugen Dragos Tamas has worked alongside 48-year-old Fr Paul Dempsey, who was recently appointed by Pope Francis as the new bishop of Achonry, as well as with Dominican Fr Paul Lawlor and Fr Michael Cudzilo from Poland. Fr Ciprian Matei is ministering in Portlaoise and Fr Petru Medves is based in the parish of Bagnelstown. More may follow.

Strong bond

As Fr Dempsey prepares to leave his international parish team in Newbridge to take up his episcopal role, he told Review: "Between Newbridge, Caragh and Prosperous, the area that I am responsible for at the moment, the priest make up is as follows: three Irish, two Polish, one Romanian and one Sri Lankan.

"Personally, I have found the Romanian priests fantastic. A strong bond has been built between Kildare and Leighlin Diocese and the Diocese of Iaşi and the Archdiocese of Bucharest. The people here are very much getting used to priests coming from different countries, it gives the sense of a universal church."

Another diocese similarly reaping the benefits of priests from overseas ministering in its parishes is Elphin in the west of Ireland. A spokesperson told Review that there are 15 priests from overseas ministering in Elphin's parishes from Cameroon, Ghana, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Poland and Sri Lanka.

Of these, 12 of the priests are diocesan, two are from a missionary society and one is from a religious order.

"We have two formal relationships with overseas dioceses/societies - one with the Diocese of Kumba, Cameroon and another with the Missionary Society of St Paul in Nigeria. We have informal relationships with other dioceses where priests come from a particular diocese to replace their fellow diocesan priest who has returned home."

However, this enthusiasm is not mirrored by everyone in the Irish Church. Fr John Quinn is a spokesman for the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) in Ireland, which has a membership of over 1,000 Irish priests.

The 65-year-old ministers in Swords in north Co Dublin and before that worked in the south inner city for 25 years. Ordained in 1986, he was considered a 'late vocation' when he joined the seminary at 23.

"We know the statistics, and the future is not looking great as regards numbers, which are going down very rapidly and that will escalate over the next five to 10 years.

"Certainly, within the next 20 years we will have a problem with the eucharist being celebrated."

Church closures due to a lack of priests will particularly affect the faithful in rural areas. Yet he questions if bringing in priests from overseas "is the solution to our particular need in Ireland? We're not sure about that".

He stresses that the ACP's scepticism is about querying a strategy and its effectiveness for the crisis in Ireland. "We certainly wouldn't want to be giving the impression that we are not welcoming guys from abroad - that wouldn't be the ACP's agenda at all. Where we deviate from the bishops who bring in priests is - it is great in the short term, but in the long term we need a church that is reforming in a more radical way."

Cultural sensitivities

A thornier issue relates to cultural sensitivities. "It might not be that easy for priests from abroad who come from a very different culture to feel at home here. They might be more conservative and have different attitudes towards women or different attitudes towards same-sex relationships and they may come from a different political system than our own. So, it is not straight forward."

Fr Quinn refers to "some problems" where priests have "said stuff that has been a little bit off the wall and have had to be pulled up on it by the local bishop or the ACP".

He does not know if there is any programme for new arrivals to help them acclimatise and understand the weave and waft of Irish society and worries that they are just thrown in at the coalface.

For the ACP, bringing in priests from other dioceses kicks the can down the road on reform issues such as inviting priests who left to marry to return to ministry and ordaining women deacons.

"The Church is very slow to dialogue about all this," says Fr Quinn. He also feels the bishops need to engage with the membership of the ACP, which is "a voice for priests in the country who may not necessarily have a voice or feel they are not being listened to".

Referring to Pope Francis's efforts to bring about more collaboration and synodality, he observes: "We need to see more of that in the Irish Church, where people are asked their opinions, because it is the people in the pews that need to be asked how they feel about the future and where they feel the Church is going.

"Everybody's opinion is important. We are a Catholic eucharistic people; it needs a priest to celebrate the eucharist. When there aren't priests to do that, it becomes a problem. Rather than waiting for the situation to become absolutely critical, we need to address this now because the clock is ticking."

Yet word from the pews in St Joseph's in Monaghan on Sunday was "foreign priests are as good as our own priests".

According to parishioner, Pat Hamill, who attended Sunday morning Mass before heading on to work: "We have to get used to it.

"We have no other choice. While there may be a wee bit of a problem with communication, we'll adjust."

Indo Review