Father Francis Xavier Kochuveettil got off the plane in Dublin Airport a little less than two years ago and was quickly stung by the Irish air. The weather had topped out at 2C that day. The temperature felt particularly biting because Kochuveettil had just come from Kerala, a state in southern India where the weather hovers somewhere in the vicinity of 20-30C all year.
“My God, I thought, what’s happening to me?” he says. Kochuveettil, 41, has since adjusted to the wind-chill: he’s grown fond of Ireland while ministering to Catholics in Shannon Parish in the country’s south-west.
Kochuveettil is one of four priests from the Cochin diocese (a Catholic administrative district) in Kerala who are currently serving in Ireland’s Killaloe diocese. These men, along with other priests from abroad, are helping fill a gaping void in Ireland’s clergy as priests age and younger generations eschew the once-esteemed profession.
Currently, the average age for an Irish priest hovers around 70. The number of priests dying or retiring far outweighs the number joining the ranks
The number of priests in Ireland has fallen precipitously since 1959, according to The Vanishing Catholic Priest, a study conducted by sociologist Brian Conway of National University of Ireland, Maynooth. Conway notes there were a few, brief upticks in the years following Pope John Paul II’s visit to the country in 1979, and just before the first major Church scandals broke in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But last year, only five men began training for the priesthood at Ireland’s main seminary, St Patrick’s College in Maynooth.
It does not bode well for the future of the profession – especially considering that the average age for an Irish priest is hovering around 70. But Irish leadership is not giving up hope of rekindling the ailing profession as Church leaders begin to actively recruit priests from abroad.
The number of men training for the priesthood has declined sharply: only five began training last year at Ireland's main seminary, St Patrick’s College in Maynooth (Credit: Alamy)
The great decline
Last year the Irish Examiner published a report on the state of Ireland’s dioceses, which brought their struggles to light. For example, in the Diocese of Kerry, there were just 54 priests for 53 parishes. Of the 54 priests, only six were younger than 50.
Dublin’s Archbishop, Diarmuid Martin, said in a speech in Dublin in November 2017 that 57% of Dublin’s priests were older than 60 – that number is projected to increase to 75% by 2030. Further estimates show that just one new priest younger than the age of 40 will join the priesthood in Dublin every year until 2030.
In short, the number of priests dying or retiring far outweighs the number joining the ranks.
These demographics are why Father Finton Monahan, the Bishop of Killaloe diocese, has established relationships with bishops in Kerala, where vocations are stronger. He has begun placing priests from the Indian state in parishes throughout his dioceses. Four priests are from Kerala – Kochuveettil, and Fathers Rexon Chullickal, Joy Micle Njarakattuvely and Antony Puthiyaveettil – and one priest, Father Dariusz Plasek, is from Poland. Priests have also come to other dioceses in Ireland from countries such as Romania, Nigeria, Uganda and the Philippines.
In the 2016 Irish census, ‘no religion’ saw the biggest increase of all faiths, while those identifying as Catholic fell
Ireland’s clergy decline seems to be a natural outcome of the country’s societal and demographic changes. Ireland, like many European countries, is ageing while its birth rate is falling; according to the 2016 census, the number of people older than 65 increased by 19.1% since 2011 – double that of people aged 15 to 64. Estimates released in April also revealed a negative net migration for Irish nationals, as 2,100 more left the country than returned in 2018.
Conway points to structural changes in society as an even greater factor. Young men in Ireland have many more secular professional opportunities than they used to, and the priesthood simply does not have the same appeal it once did. And although more groups are advocating for their inclusion Church leadership, women are still barred from the Catholic priesthood globally, which automatically shrinks the recruitment pool by half.
Formerly a priest in southern India, Fr Kochuveettil now ministers to Catholics in the Shannon Parish, in south-west Ireland (Credit: Father Francis Xavier Kochuveettil)
Settling into home away from home
Monahan’s ‘experiment’ has achieved good results in Killaloe.
Kochuveettil says he has connected well with people in Shannon. He says he came to Ireland with limited English-speaking abilities, but the parishioners and fellow priests gave him the confidence he needed to develop those skills. From the start, he routinely received dinner invitations and he and Puthiyaveettil recently accompanied Monahan and about 450 parishioners on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, in France.
“The elderly folk, they’ve adopted them as their grandsons,” Monahan jokes, referring to the comparatively youthful Kochuveettil and Puthiyaveettil, who is in his 20s. “They really took to them, big time.”
Fellow priest Chullickal, who is based in Nenagh Parish in County Tipperary, describes his parishioners as very generous. He was touched when they put their money together and raised €2,100 for his home diocese of Cochin after monsoon rains swept through the region in June. “I did not ask them to do this,” he says.
Dublin’s Archbishop, Diarmuid Martin, has acknowledged that the country's clergy are primarily elders – and that the number dying outweighs the number joining (Credit: Alamy)
Chullickal has been in Tipperary since November 2017 and says he’d be thrilled to renew his tenure in Ireland after his three-year term is up next year.
Although everyone is happy with how things have played out, Monahan says recruiting priests from abroad is not currently the only long-term solution to the priesthood’s woes. The Irish Church is also encouraging lay people to take up greater roles in day-to-day operations and, despite the odds, leadership is still determined to increase homegrown vocations.
But even getting people – especially youth – to Mass has been a tough sell, says Kochuveettil.
Conway says Ireland, in what amounts to a historical reversal, has now become a mission country itself. Although a Catholic renaissance could be possible, he believes that the Church may continue to shrink to the point where it is akin to a minority church.
The elderly folk, they’ve adopted [the new priests] as their grandsons – Father Finton Monahan
Others are more optimistic. Margaret Cartwright, the director of Vocations Ireland, says she has personally experienced an upward trend in interest from young people in her efforts to recruit them to religious life. She says that stems from her plan to help religious orders modernise their recruitment tactics, so they can communicate more easily with younger generations.
There is, in fact, some statistical evidence that Catholicism can still captivate Ireland. Irish Catholics between the ages of 16 and 29 actually attend weekly Mass at the third highest rate in Europe after Poland and Portugal. The number is declining, but still healthier than most of the continent.
For now, as the elders that led the Church are ageing out, Kochuveettil is hopeful that he and other younger priests from abroad can keep the flame burning – and the priesthood thriving. “It’s there in these people’s blood,” says Kochuveettil. “But it’s in a dormant state. If they get a kind of spark, it will become a big fire.”