I've discussed the figures with people off-line and I know that some dioceses (my own included) have done proper projections of priest numbers over the next couple of decades and made their clergy aware of what's down the line. However, in my experience, when the figures are put before members of the laity there tends to be a refusal to accept them - a sort of pious state of denial and the expectation that 'things will turn around again.' In my experience, many people don't believe there is a problem until their own local area loses a priest in the diocesan changes and even then the attitude persists that the Bishop has some kind of 'priest factory' from whence he can produce men to plug the gaps, or that the developing Church (in Africa, etc.) should be asked to provide us with clergy or even that elderly and sick priests be taken out of their nursing homes and hospitals and shuttled around the diocese every Sunday morning.
Anyway, for the sake of contributing something to the discussion, these are the 'quick and dirty' figures I put before people to give them an idea of where we're headed.
Let's look at the numbers entering Maynooth over the past 6 years:
12 in 2012, 13 in 2011; 10 in 2010; 24 in 2009; 14 in 2008; 18 in 2007.As I understand it, those numbers are the students beginning seminary studies in St Patrick's Maynooth and their colleagues from St Malachy's in Belfast ('The Wing') who join them for the 'spiritual month' at the start of their formation. There might also be a seminarian or two beginning his studies at the Irish College in Rome, the Beda in Rome or (occasionally) some other foreign house of priestly formation.
If you average the figure for the past 6 years you get 15 entrants per annum - and to that we can add 1 to take account of those beginning studies in Rome or elsewhere. So, let us presume 16 men begin studying for the diocesan priesthood for Irish dioceses each year.
When I was in seminary, the prevailing wisdom was that that if a man began formation, there was an approximately 50% likelihood that he would be ordained. That sounds more or less right to me - and I don't think it necessarily reflects badly on the seminary system. Men discover that they're not called to priesthood or that they're not suitable for priesthood. A good seminary system will allow the correct discernment to be made. In any event, I'd be surprised - even if one had a Rolls Royce seminary set-up - if a significant proportion of entrants didn't discover their vocation was elsewhere. So, for the sake of these calculations, we assume that half of our entering seminarians are ordained.
Finally, we need to make a 'guesstimate' about how many years of active service each newly-ordained priest will give. Most vocations these days in Ireland tend to be from men who have already done a primary degree and may have spent a few years working. There will be a few that come directly from Secondary School or from the middle of their undergraduate studies. There is also a significant proportion who enter seminary in middle-age. Traditionally, most priests would have been ordained aged about 24 or 25. Nowadays, I would say that it's more likely that a priest would be ordained in his early/mid-30s, with, as I said, a few men in their 40s and 50s being ordained as well. Most dioceses have an official retirement age of 70, but priests can and do serve beyond that age. That being said, by the time a man reaches 75 years or thereabouts it's usually not fair to expect him to continue in parish duties, even if he's in good health. Some priests will retire at a much younger age than that, of course due to ill-health or other reasons. Inevitably there will also be those who leave the priesthood. So, whilst it's possible that a man might be ordained aged 25 and serve in parish ministry until he's 75 making for a total of 50 years of active service, when one takes into account the possibility of illness, death, and all the other factors and realise that most priests will be older than 25 when they are ordained, I think it's more reasonable to expect the 'average' priest to give 35 or 40 years of service before he retires from full-time ministry. For the sake of these calculations, we'll take my upper estimate and assume that the average priest ordained these days will serve for 40 years before he retires from active ministry.
If you hold these figures to be constant over the next few decades, you will see that in 4 decades' time, the number of diocesan priests active in Ireland will be...
16 [seminary entrants] X 0.5 [probability of ordination] X 40 [average years of priestly service = 320That's a quick and dirty calculation. I don't pretend that it's scientifically accurate and if anyone wants to do the calculations based on other estimates, then that's fine. I'm just putting that figure out there as an indication of where things are going if the numbers don't change. Even if you want to be optimistic and assume a doubling of priestly vocations and a lower 'seminary drop-out rate', you'd struggle to bring the estimated number of active diocesan priests in Ireland in 40 years time up to the 800 mark.
To the best of my knowledge, there are approximately 3,000 diocesan priests in Ireland at the moment, of whom about 75% I understand to be active - in other words, somewhere about the 2,200 mark. So, if trends remain unchanged, you have to imagine a situation where for every seven active diocesan priests in Ireland today, there will be just one in 40 years' time.
Now, of course the future is not written in stone, and both Shane and Fr Gerard have their own assessment of why things are the way they are. For myself, I'll just say that in my opinion the level of priestly vocations in Ireland is consistent with the lack of success we are experiencing in forming disciples of Jesus Christ who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their faith.