A report this week paints an alarming picture of the Catholic Church in eight years' time as vocations and congregations plummet. Gemma O'Doherty reports
Locked-up churches with 'For Sale' signs on them. Rows of coffins on the altar at funerals. Worshippers forced to travel miles for Sunday Mass. It's a scenario that few Irish Catholics would dare to contemplate, yet, in just a matter of years, it may well be the reality of life.
In a new report this week, the Dublin Diocese painted a stark picture of the acute manpower shortage it faces in the coming years due to the vocations crisis.
In just eight years' time, the number of priests in the capital will have fallen from 369 today to 235, a drop of almost 40pc by 2020. As their age profile rises and many clergy become too sick, old or burnt-out to work, most of Dublin's 199 parishes will be left to struggle with just one priest to carry out funerals, weddings, First Communions and daily Mass.
The report also calculated that with weekly attendances down to 14pc of the Catholic population, all Sunday Mass-goers could be accommodated at one service per church per week.
Across the country, it's a similar story. The average priest in Ireland is in his 60s, and soon he will have reached retirement age. More than 200 priests die every year and fewer than a dozen step in to fill their shoes. Some parishes now exist without any priest at all.
This week, Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said that non-practising Catholics shouldn't be "hanging on to the vestiges of faith" when they don't really believe in it.
The overwhelming majority of Irish Catholics are lapsed now. Just one in seven attends weekly service, a factor which has left many parishes on the brink of bankruptcy.
Yet next weekend, thousands of non-practising Catholics will pour into churches for Christmas services. Many do not venture near their local parish throughout the year but rely on it to perform the big occasions in their lives such as christenings and funerals. But some people believe those days are coming to an end. "There's a very strange attitude towards religion in Ireland," says Michael Kelly of the Irish Catholic newspaper.
"I have absolutely no doubt that when the final census figures come out, about 86pc will describe themselves as Catholic. Most of those people live their lives as if God doesn't exist yet they still cling to the vestiges of faith.
"When it comes to Christmas, Easter, baptising their child, they still want to be involved. In Dublin last year, there were only 12 secular funerals. You can't tell me only 12 atheists died in Dublin last year.
"These people create massive demands on the church but they are not contributing to it in any way on a weekly basis and there is a big problem here in terms of the workload on priests. Many parishes are at breaking point. They are trying to tend to their own flock and you get these occasional people who come along and expect to be treated in the same fashion.
"One example has been the reaction by some parents to the new programme for First Communion pupils, 'Do This In Memory.' The plan behind it is to engage parents in the six weeks leading up to Holy Communion when they are supposed to come to Sunday Mass, yet priests will tell you they get a lot of resistance from people questioning why they should have to go to Mass.
"These are very well-educated people who just don't join the dots when it comes to religion and that if you want to raise your child as a Catholic, that requires some form of commitment."
At the other end of life's spectrum, a similar attitude prevails. Jonathan Stafford, an undertaker with Dublin's Stafford Funeral Homes, sees the pressures priests are under every day and predicts radical changes in the way we bury our dead in the near future.
"Priests seem to be just run off their feet. They're going from funerals to weddings to caring for the sick. People expect them to be as involved as ever even if they haven't seen them for years.
"But we are seeing a situation now where a lot of parishes will only do one funeral a day and a huge majority don't do the evening removal at all. In 10 years' time, a lot of people won't go to the church at all or families will have to wait several days, if they want a priest for the funeral.
"In the UK and Australia, 75pc of funerals don't go to a church any more. I'd say that's what will happen here and the service will take place in the crematorium, or the cemetery."
One parish that is getting used to life without a resident priest is the copper mining village of Allihies on the Beara Peninsula. This summer, it became the first of Kerry's 53 parishes to be left without a priest, due to a critical shortage of them in the diocese.
"When it happened, it came as a big shock," says Tadhg O'Sullivan of the Allihies Parish Co-Op.
"Something we always had and took for granted is no longer there. Allihies parish is the most westerly parish in the country and the furthest village from Dublin. It has added to our feeling of isolation. The parish priest was our point of contact for many things, not just religious. Suddenly we have different priests appearing on the altar each week and that connection is not there. They come in from other parishes and a half an hour later they're gone again. It doesn't sit well with most people.
'There was a time when you could arrange weddings, funerals, baptisms to suit yourself. That's all gone now. You have to fit in with all the other parishes in the areas. We had a funeral last weekend and it was doubled up with Sunday Mass.
"It's been very hard for older people, especially the elderly who worry that if they get sick in the middle of the night, it will be quite a while before the priest gets to them. But Allihies is the thin end of the wedge. In 10 years' time, a lot more rural parishes will be in the same boat."
This week, a gathering of 60 priests in Dublin reflected the growing mood of despair and frustration among those left to shoulder the burden. "They are just exhausted," says Fr Sean McDonagh of the Association of Catholic Priests, a forum for Irish priests to discuss the critical issues facing the church, which held the meeting.
"Their mood is one of deep anxiety. You have parishes where not so long ago you had four priests and now have only one or two. They are thinking 'who is coming after me?' One of their main complaints is that the Irish hierarchy doesn't seem to care.
"We have almost screamed at the Holy Spirit for vocations but He doesn't seem to be hearing to us. Maybe He is saying there is a different way, which might involve dropping the rule of celibacy. When you weigh the value of celibacy against regular access to the Eucharist, obviously, in the theology of the church, the Eucharist is much more important. The leadership of the church has to start taking its head out of the sand."