At least eight priests in Ireland have committed suicide in the past 10 years, according to recent reports given at meetings of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP).
The alarming figure comes as the Catholic News Agency (CNA) reports on a severe dip in morale and a mental health crisis among Irish clergy, caused by abuse allegations and declining numbers being ordained as well as other factors.
This has sparked calls for a confidential helpline to be set up for priests needing support.
At a recent ACP meeting, an attendee said: ‘Our morale is affected because we are on a sinking ship. When will the “counter-reformation” take place? We’re like an All-Ireland team without a goalie. We need a national confidential priests’ helpline. We’re slow to look for help.’
According to the CNA, concerns over a severe dip in the morale and well-being of priests in the country have been raised by the 1,000-member ACP in at least three different meetings in recent months.
Roy Donovan, a spokesperson for the ACP, said in May that as well as the priests who are speaking up, he believes many more elderly churchmen are suffering in silence, and have no outlet for help.
Ireland is facing a serious vocations crisis: In 2004, the country had more than 3,100 priests, but by 2014, the last year from which figures are available, the number had declined by more than 500 to 2,627. The number of active priests is likely closer to just 1,900, according to CNA.
The shortage has led to a phenomenon called ‘clustering’, where several parishes are combined into one because of lack of leadership, increasing priests’ workload and subsequent stress, and forcing many to work well beyond retirement years because of the lack of new vocations.
‘These men lived through a time when there were plenty of vocations and their churches were full at Mass, so there’s a loss of esteem. Also, in the past they would have had live-in housekeepers. Now most don’t and are on their own and so feeling a lot more isolated and lonely, as well as feeling nervous and more vulnerable,’ Brendan Hoban, one of the founders of ACP, said during a meeting in November 2016.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church in Ireland has, like elsewhere around the world, been rocked by a sex abuse scandal that began in the 1990s and resulted in a massive decline in both vocations and in the faith of the laypeople.
The CNA reported minutes from the ACP meetings showing that priests reported being disheartened by the declining faith in the people they serve, ‘who have so little contact with the church from First Communions to funerals’.
The minutes added that priests’ confidence ‘has been eroded when we see so many people going through the motions of faith’.
More recently, the Church in Ireland has also been hit by negative headlines rsurrounding the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam. The priests noted that the sisters there ‘did a disservice by not clarifying exactly what happened. They need to do so immediately. It makes our job impossible, especially as we face a storm on abortion next year’.
The country is also facing an ongoing, heated debate about whether or not to legalise abortion.
The priests agreed that they need to be better about asking for help when they need it.
‘We need to unmask and say ‘I need help!’ There is a great sense of ‘being alone,’ making our own way in the diocese,’ the priests said. ‘There is a lack of dialogue among priests in the diocese. Yet, people are fantastic and generous in parishes, if given half-a-chance.’
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