Tuesday, 10 June 2014


Today in THE IRISH TIMES newspaper Michael Harding - columnist and former priest wrote a column entitled: THOUGHTS ABOUT PRIESTS IN A PRIESTLESS WORLD.
Michael Harding

His column made me feel very sad.

He writes:

"I keep wondering where all the priests in Ireland have gone: the ones who used to appear at concerts to do the raffle, presided over weddings, spoke at public meetings in every parish hall, and sat on committees of the GAA. Thuey used to smile from the altars as if they wanted to gather the world into their arms with lullabies of heavenly peace as comforting as a mother's milk.

And you couldn't miss them in the carpark of a good hotel because they usually drove big cars, although I knew some Jesuites who occasionally waited for buses.

I often saw them eating dinner in Wynn's Hotel in Dublin, with their black coats on the backs of empty chairs, and wan creatures with umbrellas dangling from their forearms as they browsed shelves of bookshops along the quays or stood in the queue for tickets to the Savoy. They were all over the place.

Seminaries were stuffed to the gills with young men waiting to take their places in the great battalion that prayed their Masses on Sundays before enormous congregations and arranged their weekday Masses to suit old people who would have found it difficult to negotiate the ice on the church steps earlier than 10 am on winter mornings. But nowadays it's rare to see a cleric in uniform, and when I do I scrutinise his face in case I might have known him in the old days.

Last week I saw a man in black with grey hair crossing the street of a small village as I drove through, and he was clutching what I presumed was his prayer book.

He looked familiar, and I thought he might be someone I knew when I was in college, because I knew a lot of priests back then.

I knew parish priests who smoked pipes and shot pheasants and I knew fat priests who found it difficult to get into their vestments and priests who would drink all night long and needed to hold on to the altar at morning Mass for fear of dizzy spells.

I knew chaplains who slept with teachers and who would douse themselves with aftershave in case some alert staff member might catch the scent of a woman on their hands when they were didtributing Holy Communion. I knew young priests who couldn't take their eyes off their own Volkswagen cars and who had golf clubs sticking out the back windows and I knew old priests who were once young priests who always relished a good breakfast in the convent parlour.

 I knew priests who boasted that they hadn't read a book since they were ordained, and I knew others who had books by Hans Kung and Germaine Greer on their shelves. I knew priests who came back from Brazil with ideas that made women in natural family planning groups blush and priests who had been in jail in the United States for pouring napalm on draft cards and priests who had worked with the poor in Recife.

I even knew some holy priests who had been to deep places in the human psyche and who looked out at the world with disappointed eyes.

There was no single type of priest back then, but they all wore black and they all prayed in little churches tucked away in quiet villages; or in the folds of some lovely valley; or up the mountains at the end of narrow, winding roads that it would be difficult to negotiate if you were in a large Volkswagen and happened to meet a big tractor.

Many of the priests I knew left the ministry disillusioned and are married with children. Others remained as serving clerics, weighing up the good they did for old people, the dying or those already bereaved, and in the balance deciding that to stay within the church was worth the effort, despite the catastrophe of child abuse and the convents full of weeping children.

So I was wondering as I slowed the Jeep to a halt on the street if this grey headed man who crossed was once a friend of mine.

I opened my window intending to say: "Good morning, Father" but then I realised that he was wearing a collar and tie.

"I thought you were a priest", I joked, "when I saw your prayer book. You looked like someone heading to the nuns for a good breakfast".

"Ah no", he said, pointing to his book. "Thats my ledger. I'm just reading the electricity meters".

We laughed, and on I drove, almost lighthearted then, in the priestless world".

Pat writes:

Why did this piece of writing make me feel sad? Maybe it is because I am a 62 year old priest in an Ireland that is fast becoming priestless? 

Maybe it is because the "project" that I have devoted my life to - the church - is now in melt down?

Maybe it it because I knew all the same kinds of priests that Michael Harding knew?

Maybe it is because in spite of meeting priests who were outright bastards - I also knew and meet good priests who inspired me and helped me? And now those good priests are being forgotten in a world full of stories about the bastard priests?

Maybe it is because I know how many priests suffered through imposed celibacy, lonliness, alcholism etc?

Maybe its because I know that the priesthood can be a powerful force for good - but has been used by many as a powerful force for evil?

All I know is that today, Michael Harding's piece has left me feeling melancholic and sad. 

+Pat Buckley


  1. Bishop Pat, What do you think of the idea often asserted by both sedevacantists & conspiracy theorists, that the church actively wants there to be no priests? I wouldn't like to carry it as far as saying it is a plot of some sort, but it does often seem that if actions speak louder than words, most dioceses & religious orders do everything they can to ensure there will be as few priests as possible.

  2. I had not heard this theory.

    Why would the authorities of the church want no priests?

    The way things are now I would be slow to recommend a man to join the priesthood :-(


  3. My theory is that things dissappear when they become useless! Looking back on my serving priesthood I often asked myself What is the priest for? Someone to sit on the end of the top table at weddings and listen to and tell the same boring jokes ad nauseum? Pour water on the babbies head and not be seen again until 1st Communion. Church for me was fast becoming a process of functionality rather than spirituality. I am glad I am no longer a shiny ball on the christmas tree that is Roman Catholic Ireland. Sean

  4. It will happen Pat! Ireland and the world will one day be without priests, catholicism, christianity and current "in vogue" religions. It's only been around for 2000 years, and that's but a tick of the last 24 hour clock. Those who think catholicism or christianity to be a "final revealed truth" appear to have little sense of perspective or knowledge of the historical rise and fall of numerous religious beliefs through countless generations worldwide.
    Unless mankind in its stupidity destroys itself, new religious practices will evolve as manifestations of humanities intelligence trying to make sense of existence.
    There's no need to be sad, just accept its inevitability. I do accept though that recognising the futility of a "career" based on myths must be incredibly difficult, especially after so many years.

  5. Willo,

    You may be right about the future?

    My "problem" (if it can be called that) is that I believe that Jesus did exist, was the Son of God and that I hope to spend eternity with him after a life serving him here.

    My problem is not with God or Jesus - but with the institution(s) that claim to represent him.


  6. As a priest reading this I have to say that I am crying. I don't know why really! Perhaps this is the work of the Holy Spirit and the priesthood of the laity needs to come forth. I have only been ordained for less than 15 years and I can assure you I am under more and more pressure with regards to living in a society that suspects me every time I go out the front door. I am increasingly lonely from the point of view that I operate alone and those lay people who do work with me watch and listen to every word. I cannot relax for a minute because someone somewhere will be annoyed and report me to the multiple authorities and mechanisms over me!

    Who can I report to? I have 6 months until my 15th anniversary, I will leave, I have had enough the fish bowl!


    1. Dear Brother,

      I am 38 years ordained last Saturday. I still love being a priest. To me priesthood is about relationship with The Lord and serving people.

      But I can understand how you feel. I am very sorry too that you are increasingly lonely. It does not have to be like that. I am never lonely - even though I am a clerical leper :-)

      Because of your sensitivity I suspect that you are a very good priest. Your going will therefore be a loss.

      But maybe it will be a gain for you?

      Whatever happens - do all you can to make yourself HAPPY.

      You deserve that.


    2. Dear Cleric You remind me of how I felt before I left Sligo. The problem is finding life after the collar. If possible make sure you have something in place-what about Church of Ireland? Im a bit out of touch with the emerald isle these days. Anyway put your wellbeing first and as Mr Spock sez Live long and prosper.Sean

  7. The Irish Church refuses to face statistics on priesthood


  8. The real question is, what can we learn from elsewhere? In the United States many dioceses now have an abundance of vocations and they have changed the situation in ten years. For example in the Diocese of Lincoln, which is smaller than Cork and Ross they have 47 men studying for the diocesan priesthood. Ten years ago they only had 11 in the seminary. Little Rock smaller than Galway has 21 men in seminary. St. Louis had to build an extension to the seminary because the numbers were overflowing. Paterson now has over 40 whereas just five years ago they had 5. What can we learn? Or perhaps the key question is: are we willing to learn??


  9. An historical perspective on developments in the Irish church – by the time Bishop Gille of Limerick was writing at the beginning of the twelfth century, there appears to have been far more churches than there was in the 7th and 8th centuries and by the end of the twelfth century, there were more churches in the diocese of Limerick then there are currently parishes in the modern diocese. But if you compare the role and duties of priests (In so far as we can discern them) between the 7th and 8th centuries and the twelfth, there seems to have been an increase in their involvement with the lives of their parishioners. In particular, there is no evidence that in the earlier period, priests were celebrating the sacrament of marriage for everybody (though they were probably blessing the unions of some) and the sacrament of confession had grown enormously in importance. In the earlier period, the emphasis is very definitely on baptism and on funerals and to some extent on teaching and preaching. Also it is not clear how often Mass was offered and to whom (whether it was largely limited to those living on church estates or to professed religious as some have speculated.) By the end of the twelfth century, daily Mass was offered at the cathedral of St Mary apparently for everybody but it is not clear whether daily Mass was ever available outside monastic instiutions in earlier times or even if it existed in all monasteries. If our current world is demanding new ways of seeking vocations, maybe it is also demanding new ways of envisaging priesthood – not just the argument about whether females can become priests but also what should be given priority in a priest’s daily life. I have visited parts of France where the local mairie is now in charge of weddings and even funerals – not because of secularist instincts but because there are no local priests and in the parish of Bar sur l’Aube, the local priest is in charge of 50 churches so he visits each church once a year.


  10. Given that the majority of teenagers and young adults in Ireland have no real connection with the Church we should not be surprised that there are so few vocations. Detailed research ought to be carried out into why so many people are turning their back on the Church. Could the culture of clericalism etc which gave rise to the scandal of child abuse also be part of the reason why people are leaving the Church. If someone under 18 is being subjected to acts of emotional abuse at the hands of priests or influential members of the faith community they can look to the child protection service for assistance. If the person being bullied is over 18 there is no where to go for help. The only choice available is to accept the treatment or to leave the Church. Under Health and Safety legislation employers are required to have anti bullying policies in place within their organization. Lay men and women who serve the Church on a voluntary basis have no rights or protections. One young adult pointed out to me that – given that so few people will be attending Mass in years to come the lack of priests may not be such a problem.


  11. Without priests (and senators) life will, we hope, go on and people will eventually manage to serve God in spirit and in truth without them and develop new structures. A lot of dead wood stands in the way of progress and has to be cleared away. In Central and South America hundreds of thousands of Catholics have left the Roman Catholic Church and joined evangelical churches, where there is no priest. Who is the loser? This is spoken of as a reversal, but for whom? For the power structure of course, not the individual. Commentators who bemoan this phenomenon are never thinking about the individual. They talk of “The challenge for the church”, ie the power structure, that people have found a way to serve God that they really believe in.


  12. Broadminded Parishioner11 June 2014 at 21:53

    Never mind where are all the Priests, where are all the Parishioners? Our Priest has to say Mass in 4 churches in an area of about 210 sq miles during the course of the week so I concur that we do lack Priests. However, out of curiosity I have made a point of going to Mass at each of these churches to see what they are like. A fortnight ago I attended the Saturday evening Mass in a small town that he only goes to in the Summer as the snow in Winter often makes the journey slightly treacherous and there were thirteen of us Parishioners besides myself and three of them were my own children. Today I went to weekday Mass at another Church in his cluster and there was a grand total of three of us plus the Priest. Poor man is forever in his car trying to do the right thing. It is all dying away slowly. If you want another take on the subject try "Who will Break the Bread" by Brendan Hogan. His book made me cry - his portrayl of the lonely priest and their diminishing numbers is heart-breaking and his answer is pretty clear. Take away the celibacy vow.