By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — As a new study shows the vocations crisis is worsening for the Catholic Church in Ireland, a nationwide drive to coordinate efforts to find more priests is planned, including a cyber-recruitment campaign on the Internet with links to the country’s 26 dioceses.
Last Sunday was Vocations Sunday, and as sermons throughout the country focused on the attractions of a life in the church, figures compiled for the Bishops Conference showed the number of new entrants had plummeted from 750 in 1970 to 91 last year.
All the figures on the religious life show an accelerating rate of decline as numbers in parishes, monasteries and convents drop and replacements are not turning up.
Ordinations were down from 259 to 43 in the 20 years, according to the church’s Council for Research and Development. These included just nine for religious orders and 34 for Irish dioceses and dioceses abroad.
Last year, there were 451 deaths of people in the religious life — 294 of them nuns. Seventy left the life, while 77 of those studying to enter also opted out.
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Orders of nuns appear particularly badly hit last year. In addition to the high number of deaths, 27 left and eight postulants opted out of their studies, compared to just nine new recruits who were professed.
The Bishops’ spokesman, Fr. Martin Clarke, said that while the number of religious last year was 19,517 — down from 33,092 in 1970 — Ireland still had a high ratio of priests, at one in 1,000, compared to an average of one in 3,000 worldwide.
He said the dropping figures do not reflect the increasing involvement of the laity in parish life as the church changes and evolves.
"It’s partly a declericalization," Clarke said. "There are now about 1,500 lay people training, whereas in the past there would have been 1,500 seminarians.
"Obviously, it’s a very changed situation, but we are still very well provided for in the level of service on the ground compared to elsewhere in the world."
He dismissed suggestions that there is a crisis and said historically numbers have fluctuated. "The two pitfalls are complacency and despondency, and I don’t think we should fall into either trap," he said.
The Bishops’ newly appointed national vocations director, Fr. Kevin Doran, plans to bring together vocation directors from throughout the country in the autumn to coordinate efforts.
The diocese of Kerry has launched a new drive for priests with the emphasis on "nurturing" rather than recruiting, and the archdiocese of Dublin has brought out a video centered on Fr. John Kelly, a chaplain in Tallaght Hospital who served in the Donnycarney parish.
With the aid of a strategy drawn up by a U.S. agency, Quantum Advertising Group International, the archdiocese of Tuam is first to use an Internet website for recruitment with the slogan, "Surfing? Deep calls to deep."
"I hope to develop cooperation rather than have everybody working on their own little thing," Doran said.
"We need to develop vocational promotion to keep the idea out there in the public consciousness and vocational accompaniment to help candidates to think through their decision.
"We need a coherent approach throughout the 26 dioceses, so that people might not seem to get different messages from different directions."
He said the decline was causing problems with parishes being assessed for their needs and some seeing the number of priests being reduced and Masses cut back.
Doran said that the decline in vocations appeared to have bottomed out in some dioceses. In Dublin, there had been no vocations at all in 1996 and 1997. In 1998 there were two and four joined last year. This year, one has already been accepted and four more are being considered.
However, he revealed that Clonliffe College, which had new wings built onto it in 1951 and 1966 to cope with the large number of vocations, would no longer function as a seminary beginning in September.