A new book, which will be published later this week, calls for a radical rethink on the priesthood and the structuring of its training, in order to embrace a wider body of men.
Where Do We Go From Here: The Crisis in Irish Catholicism, by Fr Brendan Hoban, one of the founders of the Association of Catholic Priests, calls for a return of the tradition of ordaining ‘viri probati’- men who have proven their worth in terms of their standards and values, and may be married or unmarried.
Such candidates would provide support for parishes which otherwise will be left without the Mass, Fr Hoban suggests.
Speaking to ciNews about his book, Fr Hoban said it was written in the context of the “catastrophic” decline in vocations to the priesthood that will make itself felt in the Irish Church in the next 10-15 years.
If current trends continue, the diocese of Killala, where he serves, will have just eight priests in 2032, all of whom will be in their 60s or 70s.
Fr Hoban warned that the Irish Church is facing, “a Eucharistic famine,” unless it realistically addresses this shortage of priests.
Discussing his call for the ordination of ‘viri probati’, he explained, “We are going to leave our people without the Eucharist, and if there is no Mass there is no Church. So we have to have priests. I am suggesting as a first measure that we should look seriously at ordaining these men who may be married or unmarried.”
He added that there would be no need for the men who are selected to train for the priesthood to do the full course of study, which is currently undertaken by seminarians.
Rather, he said, any course should be tailored to enable candidates to do it on a part-time basis in a shorter length of time, as is currently the case with those training to be deacons.
“At the moment, the reaction to the decline in vocations is to cluster parishes and create bigger parish units with fewer priests and declining numbers of priests in specific parishes. The result of that is that priests are getting older and they are working harder because they are covering more ground and more parishes. This is very much a short term solution,” he stated.
"Nobody believes at this stage that the numbers of vocations are going to increase significantly. So there is going to be a huge need for priests in parishes in 10-15 year’s time," he added.
The book is divided into three parts. “The first part is about saying where are we. In other words, let’s be real about what is happening ; let’s name the truth even though it is very difficult and people don’t want to name it."
Fr Hoban said the easier reaction is to fly away from the problem.
"But there is no point in flying back to the 19th century or the Latin Mass as some kind of refuge from the world. We need to be real about what the situation is in terms of vocations, the actual numbers that are involved and that will be involved in 10-15 years’ time."
He called on the Church to be realistic about the fact that, "we are still bleeding parishioners in terms of religious practice and the fact that people are older and parishes are declining.”
Discussing his book, he said, “The second part is about the possibilities. If we look at what is happening around us in parishes and the changing attitudes of people; there are real possibilities. The third part is where do we go from here.”
He added that what he is suggesting is that in a crisis situation, all members of the Church must work together: bishops, priests and lay people.
“We have to first of all recognise what the problems are and then we have to together in a spirit of ‘communio’."
He added, "I would like to see a conversation or debate between the different elements in the Church, not in terms of who is in charge and who is not in charge, but in terms of focusing on the problem. What we can realistically do about the problem now. There is no point in kicking the can down the road and saying God will provide or this happened before,” Fr Hoban said.