Opinion: An Alternative to the Priest

Eric Hodgens

Imagine trying to see the doctor if only a third of them were still in the job. Imagine the court delays, the holdup with legal procedures with only a third of the legal profession still in the profession. It is not likely to happen. Even if the professions lost their appeal governments would do something to remedy the situation.

Imagine the effect on parishes and schools if there were only a third the number of priests. This time it is not only likely. It will happen over the next 25 years. And nothing we do now or in the interim can change that outcome.

The median age of active priests today is 60. The large groups ordained between 1955 and 1975 will all be dead or retired in twenty years time.

Recruitment in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane has been steady for the last 15 years. Seminary retention rates have been steady for over 30 years. We ordain about one in every three we recruit. For the last 15 years we have been ordaining only 0.25 per 100,000 Catholics. The best we can expect is that they will stay in priestly service for 30 years. Result: 7.5 priests for every 100,000 Catholics. That means that Melbourne with its 1 million plus Catholics and 220 parishes will have only 75 priests.

We are not meeting the looming challenge systematically. There are plenty of ways to handle the situation. We can employ people to run the administration of the parishes and schools. We can employ people to organize pastoral care and to train volunteers in this area. We can train and appoint people to do a lot of sacramental care such as weddings, baptisms, funerals and the leading of liturgies which do not absolutely demand a priest. One thing is sure. The priest will not be able to be the only one in charge of sacramental, evangelizing, pastoral and administrative responsibilities.

The three sacramental celebrations which demand a priest are the Mass, Penance and Anointing of the Sick. Penance (confession) is not a practical problem because so few use it these days. Anointing will have to be replaced with a paraliturgy and pastoral care by laity. The main problem is that we will not be able to provide a Mass for every parish on a Sunday. This calls for developing alternative Sunday liturgies which do not need an ordained priest. That is a big psychological hurdle to jump. The sooner we do so the sooner we can start the adjustment process for our parishioners.

In case you are crossing your fingers and thinking that we might turn this round, remember that the Melbourne seminary which serves the 1,350,000 Catholics in Victoria and Tasmania has recruited only 7 a year for the last 15 years. To get the number of priests we need to match present coverage we would need 30 a year. Even if we got to that number we would still need 30 years to bleed them through the system.

Looking to the "new movements" will not help either. If they were to make up the three quarter shortfall of the numbers needed there would have to be 150 recruits Australia-wide each year.

Could we revert to importing priests, as other professions do from time to time when shortages appear? We did this for most of the 19th Century, with most of our priests coming from Ireland. Indeed, Australia's first seminary to train and ordain our own priests was not opened (in Manly, NSW) until 1889. Melbourne diocese with just over a million Catholics is losing 8 priests from its active list each year for the next 25 years. To keep the present ratio it would need to import those eight each year. Not so easy today. Ireland's vocation crisis is worse than ours. And Africa, South East Asia and South America need all of their own. The priests are going. In the short term there is no alternative to employing laity. Long term we may be able to build a new priesthood but only if we dramatically change the job description and the conditions of the package.

Fr Eric Hodgens is a priest of the Melbourne Archdiocese

Father Timmin's response to the preceding article:

I particularly appreciate Eric Hodgens' "Opinion"...Issue 28. Before my semi- very semi- retirement, I chaired a committee that tried to tackle current and future strategies relating to resource management in my home archdiocese. We were a small but dedicated group composed of two priests and several well disposed men and women whose credentials gave us, I felt, a unique balance. Almost 10 years ago we assembled similar statistics and made similar observations. Members met with various parochial groups and offered our assistance and the benefit of our research. Our meetings were hosted by the archdiocesan authorities who even provided us with a free lunch! During our 5 year life span we made a number of presentations to all concerned.

Many appreciated and supported us and showed a readiness to walk the walk. But to a substantial number we were a threat. We questioned "the way it always has been done ...the comfortable pray, pay and obey status of so many" (with so much more to offer) ...the Divine right of Pastors ...the territorial imperative governing the minds and methods of so many "pillars" whose motto was "Do what you want next door but we are just fine thanks." ...the many parishioners, priests, religious and bishops who declared that we were on the wrong track. "The Church does NOT change, it changes everything and everyone else ergo all we have to do is pray for and foster vocations!" What an insult to the Holy Spirit!

I am convinced that we are going to have an almost complete dying off of priests. The last of whom will be dominated by men who are so far to the right as to be isolated. Then and only then will the full impact of The Spirit's life giving potential be allowed to break through. The clerical culture will be part of history. A Eucharist-centred priesthood with all of it's potential expressions will emerge and serve the millions who will have truly called them in His name.

Your comments are welcome.

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