Some Insights from Irish Priests
The bishop of Ossory, Dermot Farrell, recently made news when he predicted that the number of priests in his diocese would halve within the next ten years. It was rather surprising that this declaration reached the headlines, since the vocations crisis in Ireland is nothing new.
In 1965, four hundred and twelve priests were ordained in Ireland, the highest number on record. Ever since then, the number has been falling steadily. Statistics on ordination are (unsurprisingly) hard to come by these days, but this year only fifteen seminarians began to study for the priesthood in Irish dioceses. It is now quite common for Irish dioceses to go several years without ordaining a single priest.
How has this situation come about?
As one might expect, vastly different explanations (and remedies) are offered. There are those who claim that the dearth of new priests is a sign that the Catholic Church must “move with the times”, and accede to the usual shopping list of liberal demands: introduce married priests, women priests, gay priests, and so on. The fact that such measures have done nothing at all to halt the decline of other Christians denominations where they have been introduced, and that vocations were much higher when Church discipline was actually firmer, does not seem to strike these reformers.
Other voices call for a return to tradition, citing the comparatively large number of vocations in more orthodox seminaries, particularly in the USA. And this makes sense. Why would a young (or not-so-young) man want to dedicate his life to a religion which was unsure about its own beliefs? A return to Catholic orthodoxy is certainly essential to solving the vocations crisis. However, that is a big battle, and one that will not be won overnight. In the meantime, we have to deal with the present situation.
All vocations are ultimately from God. This, however, suggests that for many decades now, very many Irish men who were called to the priesthood have not followed that call. What can we do to change this?
I decided to ask several priests what human factors had most influenced their decision to enter the priesthood, hoping that the answers might give us some useful insights.
Fr. Donncha Ó hAodha
Fr. Donncha Ó hAodha was ordained to the Opus Dei prelature in 2001. He has worked extensively with young people and university students, and is also a prolific writer. He says: “I think the single most attractive human factor was the happiness of priests I was in touch with.”
Fr. Conor McDonough
Fr. Conor McDonough was ordained as a priest in 2016. Originally from Galway, he studied at Cambridge and Fribourg (Switzerland), and is a teacher of theology. He is also a frequent speaker and writer. He says: “Apart from the obvious things like faith in the family and so on, two specific factors spring to mind. One, a book my grandmother gave to me when I was eight, called Sixty Saints for Boys. I devoured it, and remember vividly wanting to imitate St Francis, St Benedict, and, bizarrely, St Cuthbert! The book was quickly forgotten when I hit adolescence, but the aspirations didn’t disappear entirely, and I remained open to the idea of giving everything to God in the religious life.
“Second: when, as a teenager, I began to have huge doubts about my faith (about the goodness of God and, maybe surprisingly, the question of the ordination of women), I found my way via our slow dial-up internet connection to the EWTN Q&A forum, and to a website containing the Summa Theologiae. Even though I didn’t understand everything I read, I came to realise that there were reasons for Christian faith, and that the faith is richer than I had been led to believe. That’s where my Dominican vocation was born, I think, although its growth was a long and complicated thing!”
Fr. Eamonn Roche
Fr. Eamonn Roche, a Corkonian, was ordained to the priesthood in 2015, after studying in Maynooth. Previously he had been a teacher and an IT worker. He is now a priest in the Cloyne diocese.
He says: “Though I always practiced my Catholic faith I never— not even in the slightest— considered priesthood until I was around 36 years of age. The call to priesthood comes from God, of course, but He has ways and means of opening our ears and hearts to the call. For me, the catalyst was becoming involved in youth ministry as a leader. In the years 2008 and 2009 I was a leader in Youth 2000 and was responsible for organising retreats and prayer meetings in the Munster Region. This work awakened in me a great desire to evangelise and gave me a deeper appreciation of the sacraments, the Gospel and fidelity to the Church. In that work I encountered amazing lay people and amazing priests, all on fire with the Catholic faith.
“All of a sudden, when I would awake from my sleep each morning, the first thought in my head was “priesthood”, and the thought kept arising each morning the moment I awoke. I knew the call was genuine. I wasn’t troubled by the thought and, after a few months, I made a phone call to the diocesan vocations director. I embarked on seminary formation in Maynooth and I never doubted that I was on the right path. I was ordained to the priesthood in St Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh, July 5th 2015 and have loved every minute of my priesthood since. Another factor in my call to priesthood was the good memories of priests from my own youth. Priests are a visible sign and instrument of Christ’s continuing work in the world for the salvation of souls.”
Fr. Leon Ó Giolláin
Fr. Leon Ó Giolláin is a member of the Society of Jesus who works as a chaplain in University College Dublin. This is how he describes his own journey to the priesthood.
“I thought of being a doctor for a while. But then the idea that human life is transient and that in the end the body is only temporarily ‘fixed’ but that being ‘a doctor of souls’ (as a priest) had ultimate value and significance— this thought focused my mind strongly on wanting to ‘help souls’ (an Ignatian term, souls designating ‘persons’) at the deepest spiritual level.
“Secondly, I remember seeing vocations posters stating that ‘priests were needed’. That struck a chord with me. Yes, people need priests. I believed that and so was encouraged to pursue what I also felt deep down as a call, a quiet prompting of the Holy Spirit drawing me into a way of being that I also knew would bring me happiness and fulfilment – as it indeed has, thank God.
“My parents’ quiet deep faith had a huge impact on me but more unconsciously I would say. I didn’t think about that at the time of entering religious life but in retrospect know how important a factor it was in having quiet confidence that my choice of priesthood was indeed good and worthwhile.
“Many other human factors but the above touch on ones foremost in my consciousness (or unconsciousness) at the time of choice.
Fr. Eamonn Bourke
Fr. Eamonn Bourke is also a chaplain in University College Dublin, and has previously been the vocations director for the Dublin diocese. He was ordained a little over twenty years ago.
Regarding his own vocation, he says: “I have been always blessed with a deep faith. As a young child, God was very real and close to me, and I had a desire to become an altar server in my local parish, aged seven years. I met some amazing priests during my time as an altar server. They were all very kind and generous with their time. I was taken by the fact that they were present to people at inconvenient times and seemed always available to those in need. Most of all, I was impressed by their deep faith in God. It was this deep faith that planted the seed of my vocation and became the beginning of my desire to give my life in service to people as a priest.”
Orthodoxy, Scholarship and Evangelistic Zeal
A priest who wishes to remain anonymous, but who is notable for his orthodoxy, his scholarship, and his evangelistic zeal, gave me this description of his road to ordination: “In human terms there were a number of factors which influenced my vocation. Apart from the fact that the ‘call’ was always there, and that I come from a home where the faith was important, it was nurtured in particular by my aunt who was also my godmother, a woman who had extraordinary faith and had a dynamic personality of her own. She was a real reader, thinker and debater, and her faith was far from being surface or shallow. Years of formation, wonderful conversations and, in time, pilgrimages, and her own example of fidelity to the faith and the Church, saw her fulfil with extraordinary fidelity the promise she made at the baptismal font. She was a great example of what a godparent should be. Other important people— my parents, of course; but also two priests— the local parish priest at home as I was growing up, and another priest in England that I had befriended through devotion to an English martyr.
“Reading books on the faith, and in particular the lives of the saints, who show not only that faith can be lived, but how it can be lived in the day to day trials of life, nourished the vocation and, when I went to seminary, they kept me sane as we had to endure a system that was anything but orthodox. As you know yourself, the saints must have an important place in our lives as Christians. Particular saints inspired me: my love for the Mass was fostered by St Pio of Pietrelcina, and he and St John Vianney convinced me of the importance of the sacrament of Confession. St John Paul II was also an important influence, the story of his life and his own book, Gift and Mystery, were vital in helping me make the decision to enter the priesthood. Of course, St Therese had a hand too, her prayer for me, which I often felt, encouraged me to continue my studies even when things got tough.”
This is, of course, a small sampling of priests, but what can we learn from it?
One point is that good priests, happy priests, inspire other men to follow the calling. This might, perhaps, seem not so encouraging at our moment in Irish history, when we have fewer and fewer priests. Perhaps the message we can take from it is that it is important to lead young men to the sacraments and into the orbit of inspirational priests, as far as we are able.
It also seems to be the case that religious faith is often transmitted in the family—not only from parents, but from other family members. So family life is a unique opportunity to foster vocations. We should do our best to share our faith with our family— although sometimes this can actually be more difficult than sharing it with the wider world.
In general, interpersonal influence seems to be a major factor in the creation of priests—so let us be very attentive to what we say and do, as ambassadors for Christ.
Another point to be noted is that the intellectual aspect of faith can be very significant. We should let those around us know that, as Catholics, we inherit a proud intellectual tradition which can more than meet the challenge of modern scepticism and rationalism. And, of course, the best way to do this is to explore that tradition ourselves.
Simple efforts Make a Difference
Finally, it’s intriguing that one of the priests I asked was drawn to the priesthood, at least in part, by a poster which said that priests were needed. Something as simple as that! This shows that even the simplest effort to encourage vocations might, indeed, make a difference. (I might note that I have never seen a vocations poster with such a direct slogan as “Priests are needed”. Are we soft-soaping the message too much?)
This article draws on the testimony of only a handful of priests. It would be highly desirable, I think, to make a similar survey on a larger scale. Perhaps there is some institute or organisation out there with the resources and contacts to do this? The results of such an enquiry would surely give us a better idea of what actually helps men follow God’s call to the priesthood. If the Faith is to revive in Ireland, the message of that poster is more urgent than ever. We need priests!
Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh’s works in the library of University College Dublin, and writes the blog Irish Papist. His book Inspiration from the Saints, published by Angelico Press, is available on Amazon.