By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Declining vocations has led to a decision to close a seminary in Waterford, the last in the southeast of the country.
St. John’s will close its doors in June after the numbers studying for the priesthood there dropped from a high of more than 100 students in the 1940s to just 13 at the moment.
Diocesan spokesman Fr. Liam Power said the sharp decline had made closure of the 192-year-old college inevitable.
The announcement was made by Bishop William Lee in a letter to Massgoers. He said he "sadly" had to agree to the closure recommendation from a local committee of priests, religious and lay people.
"We all hope and pray that this fall in vocations will be temporary and the day will come, before too long, when many young men will once again come forward to offer their lives in the special service of the Lord," Lee said.
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Last September, Lee’s colleague Bishop Brendan Commiskey in the adjoining Ferns diocese shut down St. Peter’s Seminary and described priestly vocations as being in "free fall."
There were only 12 students left in St. Peter’s, down from 40 10 years earlier. St. Kieran’s in Kilkenny was also forced to shut because of declining numbers.
A survey in the Irish Catholic newspaper found that 99 priests left the church in 1997 and only 47 were ordained in the 26 dioceses in the country.
Vocations peaked in the 1940s and 1950s and many of them are now retiring, departing or dying.
Dublin was worst hit, with only eight new priests in two years and clerical manpower reduced by 35 in the same period.
Concern about the lack of vocations led to an advertising campaign, "Who are the Men in Black?", which cashed in on promotion slogans for the popular science fiction film about aliens and the visit of the All-Black rugby team.
Seminaries such as Maynooth and Clonliffe have also seen sharp falls in students and there are now only six seminaries left in the country.
The drop in vocations — there are about 220 priests in training, when 20 years ago there were 600 at Maynooth alone — is seen as the result of the weakening hold of the church in the country, the celibacy issue and religious sex scandals.
Surveys of attendance at Mass show a fall from over 90 percent 20 years ago to an average of about 54 percent today. In some deprived urban areas attendance to down to 10 percent.