Why Ireland Is Running Out of Priests

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Wanted: Clean-living young people for a long career (women need not apply). Responsibilities: Varied. Spiritual guidance, visiting the sick, public relations, marriages (own marriage not permitted). Hours: On call at all times. Salary: None, bar basic monthly stipend.

He hasn't placed classified ads in the Irish press just yet, but according to Father Patrick Rushe, coordinator of vocations with the Catholic Church in Ireland, "we've done just about everything" else to attract young men to the priesthood. And yet, the call of service in one of Europe's most religious countries is falling on more deaf ears than ever.

Earlier this month, the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, made a grim prediction about the future of the church in Ireland: If more young priests aren't found quickly, the country's parishes may soon not have enough clergy to survive. He told the congregation at St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral in Dublin that his own diocese had 46 priests aged 80 or over, but only two under 35 years old. It's a similar story all over the island. According to a 2007 study of Catholic dioceses in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, about half of all priests are between the ages of 55 and 74.

Ireland's ties to the Catholic Church run deep. The ordination of a family member was once regarded as a moment of great prestige, especially in rural areas. Even as recently as 1990, over 80% of Irish people said they attended Mass at least once a week. But the country's relationship with the church began to change dramatically in the mid-1990s when Ireland's economy began to take off, ushering in years of unprecedented growth. Soon, disaffection replaced devotion among Ireland's newly rich younger generation. Most devastating of all, however, were the sex-abuse scandals involving pedophile priests that surfaced around the same time. Criticism over the handling of the case of Father Brendan Smyth — a priest who had sexually abused children for over 40 years — even led to the collapse of the Irish government in 1994. (Prime Minister Albert Reynolds was forced to stand down amid public anger over the lengthy delays in extraditing Smyth to Northern Ireland, where he was wanted on child abuse charges.)

But more was still to come. Last May, the government published the findings of a nine-year inquiry into child abuse at church-run schools, orphanages and hospitals from the 1930s to the 1990s. The report, which described "endemic sexual abuse" at boys' schools and the "daily terror" of physical abuse at other institutions, shook Ireland to its core and left the reputation of the church and the religious orders that ran its schools in tatters. Then, this week, another government inquiry found that the church and police colluded to cover up numerous cases of child sex abuse by priests in the Dublin archdiocese from 1975 to 2004, prompting the head of the Catholic church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, to apologize to the Irish people. "No one is above the law in this country," he said. There are now calls for similar inquiries to be held in every diocese in Ireland...

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