The Education of Priests and the Future of the Catholic Church in Ireland

I was asked to speak at a seminar in St Patrick’s Pontifical University in Maynooth County Kildare. The seminar considered plans to develop the seminary for the education of future Catholic priests for Ireland, and for the education of lay people who will play an increasing role in the Catholic life, as the number of priests declines.

DUBLIN, IRELAND – JUN 19: Christ Church Cathedral is the cathedral of the United Dioceses of Dublin and Glendaloughand and the elder of the city’s two cathedrals. On June 19, 2009, Dublin, Ireland. © Rodrigo Garrido / shutterstock

May 16, 2022 10:21 EDT

It is a great honor to be invited to speak at this important event.

 I have lived much of my life in sight of the magnificent spire that is the centerpiece of the college. 

My father told me he had met a man who sat on the cross which is at the very top of the steeple. He enquired how the man had managed this miraculous feat.  The man paused for dramatic effect and then revealed that he had been present when the steeple was being built and the cross was lying on the ground, waiting to be erected. So he sat down on it, so that he would have this tall story to tell for the rest of his life!

Any time I looked at the steeple I thought of my father’s story, but I have to admit I did not give a lot of thought to what was going on in the shadow of this magnificent steeple within the walls of the college.

Professor Michael Mullaney and Father Tom Surlis will give you an outline of their plans for the college. I hope the discussion today among people of many diverse backgrounds and generations can enrich the plans Michael and Tom have.

I would like to say why the work here is so important.

We need priests and religious.

We also need an educated Catholic laity capable of spreading the message of Faith confidently.

The Education of Priests Remains Vital

First, let me say something about the core task of this seminary: the formation of priests. What did Vatican II say  in 1965 about the role of priests? It said their “primary duty is the proclamation of the gospel of God to all,” and, in the words of St Mark’s Gospel, to “go into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature.”

But Vatican II also referred to Catholics as those who “understand or believe little of what they practice” and added that the preaching of the word is needed for the “very administration of the sacraments.” If that was an uphill task in 1965, it is even more so today. Families are going through the motions rather than trying  to understand what Baptism and First Holy Communion for their children are really about.

Vatican II put the Eucharist at the center of everything the Church does. It said, “The Eucharistic Action is the very heartbeat of the congregation of the faithful, over which the priest presides.” The mystery of the Eucharist is central to everything, and that is what makes the education of priests so important, because without priests there can be no Mass. In the words of Vatican II, “priests fulfill their chief duty in the mystery of the Eucharistic Sacrifice”

Building Communities at the Parish Level is Key as in the Early Church

Vatican II also observed: “The office of the pastor is not confined to the care of the faithful as individuals, but is also properly extended to the formation of a genuine Christian Community.”

I think Irish priests do the first of those tasks very well. But, unlike churches in the US,  I fear they do the second task, the formation of genuine Christian communities in their parishes,  less well. Our churches are not even physically designed to encourage people to meet easily after Mass, and to make contacts that help form a “genuine Christian Community”, based and centered on the Eucharist as per the wishes of Vatican II. This is an essential first step towards the involvement of lay people in the work of the Church. Practicing Catholics are a minority in Ireland, and they need to support one another .

The Increasing Responsibilities of Lay Catholics and the Synod

In 1965, Vatican II said that priests should “confidently entrust to the laity duties in the service of the church, allowing them freedom and room for action.” This will be put to the test, 57 years later,  by Irish participation in Synod.

How many sermons have been preached in Irish parishes, explaining what the Synod is about, explaining its opportunities and , of course its limitations? I do not feel that job has really been done adequately in every parish, although I am sure it has been done very well in some.

Moving on from the formation of priests, let me say something about the formation of lay people who will play an increasing role in the Church. As I see it, this college can play a vital part in the moral, spiritual and intellectual life of the Irish people.

Filling a Void in Thinking in Ireland

The college could ask questions that go beyond the temporal and material concerns that occupy most of our waking hours in modern Ireland. It could help people to be comfortable considering deeper questions about life.

For instance, what happens when we die? Is this life all there is? Can we communicate with God? Does he hear us? What constitutes a good life? Does it have meaning beyond doing no harm, and causing as little pain as possible to others and to ourselves? What are the obligations we have to other human beings, to human lives born and soon to be born? How do we best cope with suffering and setbacks in our lives? How do we keep them in proportion in our minds?

Not everyone will answer some of these questions in the same way. Many will never even ask themselves these questions at all, claiming to be agnostic. I take the view that this type of agnosticism is a form of laziness.  It is not to be confused with the residue of doubt that all of us have after we consider these questions, questions to which there is no simple empirical answer.

But if, as a society, we avoid questions like these, we are, in a sense, not living our lives to the full. This college will enable people, lay as well as religious, to become comfortable discussing profound questions, thus helping them to live their lives to the fullest, with all of life’s complications.

There is no doubt Ireland is a very different country now to the one into which I was born in 1947.  There is immensely more material wealth now than then. There is less deference now than then. There is less of an obsession with respectability, an obsession that was the cause of many abuses in which society implicated the Church and vice versa.

We have lived through rapid change, a change in what people regard as more or less important. In other words, we have lived through a change in values. Laity and priests can respond to this change either by taking refuge in a past that never really existed, or, alternatively, by just chugging along optimistically and ignoring unpalatable trends, hoping that it will all  turn out alright in the end.

In a recent address to priests, The Pope took a very different view.  He said we should instead “cast out into the deep” as per the words of St Luke’s Gospel, trusting in our God-given discernment to find the right path. Helping a new generation of Irish people, lay and religious, to find the right path, to learn from mistakes, and to correct their course when necessary will be the task this college will undertake through the priests and laity it educates.

The Limitations of Individualism

In 21st century Ireland, there is a much stronger emphasis than before, on the rights of each individual. These rights are growing in range and scope, and are being litigated through politics and the courts. But the emphasis is heavily on rights, and on the individuals who are to enjoy those rights, rather than on the community as a whole, on shared responsibilities, or on the common good.

Social media has also facilitated the pursuit of celebrity, a desire for personal recognition.  This is sometimes accompanied by a desire not to be judged oneself, but to be free to judge others harshly, hastily, and anonymously. “Taking offense” can become a weapon in our culture wars. Feelings can be elevated, above thought, and above careful objective reflection.

The banal truth is that for every right, there must always be a concomitant responsibility. On whose shoulders does the responsibility rest? On the state and the taxpayer, on the family, on the local community or on the courts? Finding a formula to answer such questions was one of the goals of Catholic Social Thinking, which will no doubt be part of the academic activity in this college in the years ahead.

The best antidote to the problems of excessive individualism is a well developed values system. By this I mean a way of evaluating what is more important, and what is less important — without dismissing anything as unimportant. That requires judgment, and we must not be afraid to judge.

It is important to remember that Catholic Social thinking is social. It is about society, rather than just about the individual, and not just about the individual’s desire for self esteem and recognition. Our Church has always emphasized the importance of community, community among believers and community with wider society.

The fact that Ireland has a strong spirit of organized volunteerism still today is due, in no small measure, to the heritage of voluntary organizations formed by, and around, the  Catholic Church. That heritage must be preserved and enhanced. I have no doubt Maynooth, through its programs of part and full time education for lay people will contribute greatly to this.

The college will be continuing, as I said before, its vital core responsibility of educating the priests and the religious laity of the future.  As I have said, It will be preparing priests to do their work in a very different world to the one that priests ordained in the 1960’s faced.

There will be radically fewer priests, fewer people going to Mass, and a much more crowded and unsympathetic communications space through which the Church can communicate its message. As far as Catholicism is concerned, Ireland has become a mission territory.

New Skill Sets for Priests

In the past, the priest could do much of the work himself. In the future, he will have to work increasingly through lay people, most of them unpaid.  The skill set of a priest of the 2030s will center on motivating others to do the work, rather than doing it all himself.

Motivating and sustaining volunteers is a skilled and demanding job, in which the priests and the religious laity of the future must become expert practitioners. The priest of the future will have to share power, while at the same time, ensuring that the essential doctrines of the church are accurately conveyed.

Indeed, education in the doctrines of the church will become more and more important . This is because we live in a world in which people of faith want to be listened to but also crave clear answers.  There is a real tension between the desire to be heard, and the desire to be led. And it is a tension that will be expressed in the Synod. Faith and reason must sit together in the Synod.

In the past, we may have become used to having clear answers provided for us by church teaching. For some of us, controversy between leading church figures is troubling, even upsetting. We want a clear line we can follow, not a cacophony. That is a feature of politics too, and the church can learn from politics. Parties with too many competing messages do not do well in elections.

And yet we know, from daily life as well as from Scripture, that some situations are hard to fit within a single line of thinking. We need an educated and tolerant laity, educated and tolerant priests, who are willing, as the Pope said, to “cast out into the deep” and have confidence in themselves.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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