Priestly Vocations in Ireland (1958)

See also: Priests and People in Ireland (1957) and The Catholic Church in Contemporary Ireland (1931)

The following paper was read by Dr Jeremiah Newman to the First International Conference on Priestly Vocations in Europe at Vienna, Austria on 10th October 1958. Dr Newman was then Professor of Sociology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. He later served as President of the college (1968-1974) and Bishop of Limerick (1974-1995).

It is indeed a privilege for me to have been asked to address this Conference on Priestly Vocations in Europe. It is especially so because of the fact that the Conference is being held in the Schottenstift, founded in Vienna by Irish missionaries some eight hundred years ago. Although for this reason I am glad to be here, we would all be happier if this Conference were unnecessary. Unfortunately it is only too necessary in face of the acute shortage of priests which has overcome certain areas of Europe. My country is luckily in the position of being numbered amongst those countries that have sufficient priests. You know, however, that it was not always so, that the Catholic people of Ireland suffered centuries of persecution, long years during which priests were in short supply, hunted as criminals, with a price on their heads. I would like to think that my presence here, as representative of the present-day Catholicism of Ireland, may be a source of hope and confidence in the future for those of you who come from countries which need this.

It has been suggested to me that I should speak on the subject of the missionary duty of a country that is rich in priests. My country is rightly listed in this category. The statistical supplement to this paper gives you an idea of the great numbers of priestly vocations which she produces. It shows too the great extent of her overseas missionary work, both in lands in which the Church is fully established and in those that are still under the jurisdiction of Propaganda. I feel, however, that some of you are of the opinion that there is much more which Ireland could do. Indeed I have no doubt that some of you are hoping for a return of Irish priests to the continent. For my part, I believe that the first duty of a country rich in vocations is to explain to others how she manages to secure them. We know well that the ultimate reason is grace. But there are a whole host of human factors — such as social and economic — that play the important role of nature helping grace. The study of these constitutes the contemporary science of Religious Sociology, of which the Sociology of Vocations is a part. I have been invited here in the capacity of a sociologist and it is on the Sociology of Vocations that I propose to speak. The time allotted for my paper is brief, so I shall have to be very summary in the exposition of my points.

The human reasons for the wealth of priestly vocations in Ireland are many, but they can be grouped under certain broad headings. First of all must be listed the influence of the very healthy Catholic family life which is characteristic of the vast majority of Irish homes. Closely allied to this is the general system of education which by and large is permeated by a Catholic outlook. This is especially true of the primary and secondary grades. The system of primary schools for our Catholic people, though financed mainly by the State, is under clerical management. In addition, the training of teachers for these schools is entirely under the control of the Church. All this means that not only is religion taught in the primary schools, but that it is competently taught and taught as part of the general curriculum. The effect of this on securing vocations must be very great.

Great too is the effect of the respected place which the clergy, secular and regular, have occupied in Irish life for well over a century. This in turn is to be attributed to many factors. For centuries religion and patriotism went hand in hand in Ireland; the priests were leaders of the people in many national movements, they helped their country rise from political and social depression. The memory of this is still fresh in Irish minds and accords the priest a high place in the public estimation. One result of this is that the priests are supported, and generously so, by the voluntary financial contributions of the people. And by reason of the absence of any subsidy from the State, the clergy are in no danger of being regarded as public officials.

With this goes an appreciation of the Irish priest as a man of culture. For decades he has been in the forefront of cultural development — intellectual, athletic and the like. This is true of the secular as well as of the regular clergy, with obvious consequences in the matter of recruitment. As far as the diocesan clergy are concerned, this is due, almost entirely, to the National Seminary at Maynooth, at once a Pontifical University and a College of the National University of Ireland. Maynooth’s tradition of leadership in and high standard of ecclesiastical scholarship has reflected credit on the thousands of Irish secular priests who have been educated there during the past one hundred and fifty years.

Yet though well equipped intellectually, the Irish priest, and more especially the diocesan priest, is not given to cultural snobbery. Indeed, if anything, he tends to conceal his learning and to concentrate on taking part in the everyday life of the people. Not over-conspicuous by reason of his dress, he mixes well and engages in all lawful activities. In short, while he is known by the people to be a well-educated as well as a spiritual man, he tends to act and to be prised by them as a manly friend and fellow citizen rather than as a scholar.

One sometimes meets with criticism of this veiling of scholarship by the Irish clergy and American clergy of Irish extraction.[1] It is sometimes said that they would do better to be more intellectual after the manner, I expect, of their colleagues in France. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to establish this thesis. On a recent visit to America I examined the file on Vocations in the News Service Office of the National Catholic Welfare Conference. I came across an interesting release for 18 May 1925 concerning the subject of vocations in France. It dealt with an interview given to M. Jean Laporte by Mgr. Baudrillart, rector of the Institut Catholique. Mgr. Baudrillart had pointed out that at that time, in France, there was a scarcity of vocations for the diocesan clergy. The religious orders, especially the Dominicans and Jesuits, were attracting many. It was suggested that the main reason for this was that the peasant classes were less inclined to allow their sons to enter the priesthood, owing to the precarious economic condition of many of the secular clergy after the separation of Church and State. Mgr. Baudrillart, however, had welcomed the fact that more vocations were coming from the bourgeoisie, on the grounds that priests from this class possessed a higher general culture, with better results for ecclesiastical scholarship. Just look, he concluded, at the books which are being produced. Now undoubtedly the whole Church has reason to be grateful to France for the richness and extent of her theological and philosophical writing. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note what the Abbé Boulard recommends, in his Problèmes missionnaires de la France rurale, as regards the training of future priests for the country. Seminary authorities, he says, should seek to produce physically robust priests by habituating seminarians to long walks, etc.[2]

Such advice would sound very hollow in Ireland, as it has been in practice in our seminaries from their foundation. I must here describe another characteristic of the Irish system, which is considerably different from what prevails over wide areas of the continent. There are no minor seminaries in Ireland, of the kind that are found in most continental dioceses. It is not our custom in Ireland to set apart students for the priesthood at an early age, put them into soutanes and bring them up in the protected atmosphere of exclusively clerical surroundings. It is true that each diocese has a minor seminary. But this is simply a residential secondary school or college, staffed wholly or partly by priests, from which students for the diocese are chosen yearly to go to the major seminary. Students who attend such colleges are not “predestined” for the priesthood; many who enter have no explicit intention of becoming priests and follow secular pursuits when they leave. While there they wear secular garb and are encouraged to take part in a wide variety of athletic activities. It is these colleges which continue to supply our stream of vocations. And it is the manly spirit which they inculcate into their students that these carry into the major seminaries and, ultimately into the priesthood. Those who enter secular professions have a personal and friendly relationship with priests whom they knew as former school companions, which is yet another reason for the happy relations obtaining between clergy and laity.

I feel that this system has much to recommend it and would like to see it a subject for your deliberation. I am continually finding evidence in support of such arrangements. During the past summer I had the good fortune to be able to attend a Seminar on the Sociology of Vocations, held by the Vocation Institute of Notre Dame University in the United States. In an important paper, the well-known sociologist Father Joseph Fichter S.J. discussed the question as to what is the most fruitful source of vocations to the priesthood in America. His survey showed that, before they went on to be priests, the vast majority of American seminarians had been fond of athletics and had participated in all the normal activities of American youngsters. It showed too that although only 30 per cent of American Catholic boys attend Catholic High Schools, these schools contribute 60 per cent of all vocations. In other words, according to Father Fichter, the best material in America for vocation to the priesthood is the ordinary Catholic teenager. And such is to be found in the Catholic High Schools rather than in the minor seminaries, from which the rate of defection is abnormally high.

I should say, of course, that not everybody who attended the Vocation Institute was disposed to agree with Father Fichter’s opinion. Still his views interested me because of the fact that the Irish diocesan colleges resemble Catholic High Schools more than they do minor seminaries of the traditional kind. No pressure of any kind as regards the priesthood is exercised on their students, who in addition spend long vacations at home with their families. This system seems to be gaining support in many places. Last year, while on a holiday in France, I came on a copy of the vocation magazine of the diocese of Beauvais.[3] The issue in question contained a discussion on the opinions of parents on the minor seminary, submitted at the bishops’ request to the French hierarchy. One mother is recorded as replying as follows: “If I had a son who wished to become a priest, I would not direct him into a minor seminary. Too many children sent to the minor seminary are turned from their vocation, being forced against their will to practice too many exercises which weaken them. There is inevitably some pressure on the child, whereas a vocation ought to be an entirely personal and interior pull. If one of my sons desired to be a priest, I would be very happy, but I would wish that he study in a college, before entering the major seminary. In this way I would know whether his vocation was a real one and would have no fear that one day he would renounce it and leave the seminary. A child of eleven or twelve years cannot know what he wants”. The magazine gives extended comment on this attitude which, it has to admit, is quite common among many parents. It seeks to correct it by repeating papal directives on the necessity of minor seminaries and by seeking to remove certain misconceptions on which the attitude in question might be based. As an outsider, I could not help feeling that a more open mind on possible changes would he desirable. For I knew how fruitful in vocations were the diocesan colleges of Ireland, which are by no means minor seminaries of the “classical type”. It is possible, of course, that such a system may not be suitable everywhere; a certain homogeneity of Catholic life and religious practice may well be necessary in order that it be successful. Be this as it may, where it is feasible, the system seems to be fruitful in vocations.

This leads me to speak of our problems as regards vocations, potential problems, fortunately, rather than actual ones. The Irish scene is changing in many respects, in a way that could eventually have adverse effects on the number of vocations. For one thing, now that the country has attained political independence, religion and patriotism are not as closely allied as they were before. There is also the fact of a gradually improving economic system, bringing new careers and greater opportunity of suitable employment. Side by side with this, there is a growing urbanisation, as a result of an industrial policy that has somewhat neglected the rural areas. These changes, I feel, could lead to a diminution in the number of vocations.

In the past most of our vocations came from the rural areas. At present the position continues to be much the same, though the religious orders secure a considerable number of vocations in the cities in which their houses are located. The secular clergy, on the whole, is drawn from the countryside. At the moment roughly 50 per cent of students at the National Seminary are sons of farmers, while nearly 70 per cent come from rural areas. Indeed there is a certain unbalance in the structure of the personnel of the secular clergy as a result of this. Many professional and the bigger business people tend to send their sons to rather expensive non-diocesan colleges run by religious, with the result that, apart from a few dioceses in which such colleges are lacking, most diocesan clergy come from certain rural classes. This is a situation in which some change might be desirable. More important, however, is the supply of priests, irrespective of what class they come from, and it is open to question whether urbanisation will have a beneficial influence on it.

This question is disputed the Catholic world over. A 1953 survey, of over 6,000 students in ninety-four major seminaries, conducted by the Gasper Mission Society in America, showed that three-fourths of vocations to the priesthood there come from cities of more than 10,000 in population.[4] But one cannot conclude from this that urban areas are in general more fruitful in vocations than are rural. Indeed the opposite idea suggests itself when one remembers the fact that 80 per cent of American Catholics live in cities, plus the fact that for the past twenty years the numbers of American clergy are increasing at a much slower rate than is the Catholic population. On the other hand, a 1955 Swiss survey, of over 600 priests and students, sponsored by the Pedagogical Institute of the University of Fribourg,[5] has shown that most vocations to the priesthood come from moderately well-to-do, middle class families, of a kind that are found in great numbers in cities. If this be so, one might feel happy about a growing urbanisation as regards its possible effects on the supply of vocations. But here again one must take another consideration into account. It is that most vocations come from the larger families. The average in Switzerland is 6.4 children per family, while a survey of the 1958 ordination class in Maryknoll, New York, shows that of this year’s class of forty-eight, the average student comes from a family of five children and a large percentage from families of nine and ten.[6] Now most city families everywhere tend to be much smaller in size than this, which brings us back again to the possible adverse effects of urbanisation. For this reason, the continued decay of the rural areas of Ireland should cause worry as regards the supply of vocations in the future.

Indeed some people may see reasons for worry even at present. While some Irish dioceses have found it necessary to limit the number of their students for the priesthood, certain other dioceses are short of native vocations. One possible cause of this may be a financial one. Our secular priesthood is almost unique in that, in the case of over 90 per cent of its members, the financial burden of their general, philosophical and theological education is very largely borne by their parents. A recent survey among nearly 500 Maynooth students shows that the present average cost borne by his parents of a student’s formation at this major seminary is in the region of £900. The rest is contributed in the form of a subsidy by the bishop. This system is clearly a good one in certain respects. It means that the students come from the better-class families and at the same time lessens the expenses of the dioceses. But it also means serious financial difficulties for many parents and, in addition, may deter certain worthy candidates.[7] The costs too are continually rising. This, coupled with the fact that middle class city families are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet, is still another reason for worrying about the effects of urbanisation.

But the dangers are as yet fortunately largely potential. Ireland is still a country that is rich in vocations and one that sends hundreds of priests yearly to other areas. Because of this, the question will be asked and must be faced, namely, whether there is yet more which she can do to help those places that are short of priests. In particular, is there any possibility of her sending priests to Europe? Is she in a position to co-operate with the proposed “three nation plan” (for Holland, Belgium and Ireland), which this Conference hopes to discuss, towards procuring priests for those European countries that are short of them?

It must be remembered that Ireland is already doing immense overseas mission work, immense in relation to her population and economic resources. It is important to realise that, in addition to her pagan mission enterprises, Ireland has no less than six major seminaries devoted to the education of priests for English-speaking countries abroad. She has priests in all corners of the earth and every year we have many calls from areas in which they are working for more and still more Irish priests. Secondly, if she did have priests to spare, it might be urged that she should send them to England, to work amongst the Irish emigrants there, whose ranks are swelling at the rate of 40,000 a year. Yet somehow or other I feel that something additional could be achieved. The stream of Irish priests to England is fairly adequate, in view, particularly, of the rather high proportion of priests to Catholic people that already obtains in that country, and even allowing for the fact that the Catholic population there is very scattered. It might be possible, however, to recruit a large number of priests from our domestic clergy for service temporarily in non-English-speaking areas. Precisely this suggestion was made some years ago by a writer in the review Christ Unterwegs.[8]In his opinion there are a number of Western European countries which could afford to release many priests on such a lend-lease scheme.

Not everyone will agree with this suggestion. As far as Ireland is concerned, it will be urged by some that we need what priests we have if the vigour of the Church is to be preserved at home. As one Irish writer has put it, the visitor to Ireland “should be made to understand that the proliferation of Roman collars and nuns’ bonnets is what he should expect to find in an essentially Catholic population, particularly in one that is endeavouring to do a number of important things simultaneously, to catch up on the past by giving themselves the basic things they were so long deprived of — decent churches, hospitals and schools, to deal with the problems of this age which demand such things as retreat houses, centres for sociological education, workers’ colleges, and clubs of all sorts”.[9] Taking the country as a whole, it will be said that the present number of our priests is necessary in order to meet our own needs. On the other hand, there will be a divergence of opinion as to what constitutes, or should constitute, “true need”. There are some who feel that it is not necessary to have special chaplains for convents that are in close proximity to churches. Some are also of the opinion that an entirely clerical staff is not necessary in non-theological colleges.

Apart altogether from such considerations, it would seem that at least some Irish dioceses are more than adequately supplied with priests. A 1950 survey showed that the number of priests per 10,000 of the Catholic population varied from 25.7 and 21.3 in some dioceses to 11.3 and 10 in others.[10] Yet the geographical circumstances, etc., did not vary greatly as between the different areas, as neither, it is to be hoped, did the standard of religious practice. There is the fact too that while the population of the country has been in gradual decline, the total number of domestic clergy continues to rise rather steeply. Of course one must be careful to avoid exaggeration. Ireland is by no means outstandingly unusual in the number of her priests. In fact in France, which is supposed to be short of priests, there are nearly as many priests per head of the total population as there are per head of the Catholic population of Ireland.[11]

Personally, however, I adopt the view that Ireland could lend a very substantial number of her present domestic clerical personnel. Who should go and where are separate questions. The claim of South America at present is recognised by all as most pressing. And it does seem that the first to go should be members of the regular clergy, who were not ordained solely to serve the needs of Irish dioceses. It is simply staggering to think that between 1920 and 1956 the number of regular clergy in the country has increased by almost 1000. At worst this has led in some places to duplication of effort and “competitive religion”; at best it has meant that some priests have not enough work to do. And it should also be remembered that it is possible for a brand of anti-clericalism to appear, based on nothing more than the fact that the clergy appear too numerous. Perhaps the present Conference will lead to an agreement among religious superiors whereby some of the regular clergy at present stationed in Ireland will be mobilised for work abroad.

[1] I am thinking, in particular, of the paper by Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life” (Thought, Autumn 1955) and Father Denis Meehan’s “Essay in Self Criticism” (The Furrow, April 1957).

[2] F. Boulard, Problèmes missionnaires de la France rurale, Vol. II, Paris, 1945, pp. 83-86.

[3] L’Appel, Oeuvre des Vocations du Diocèse de Beauvais, 3e Trimestre, 1957.

[4] NCWC News Service Release, 20 April 1953.

[5] NCWC News Service Release 4 July 1955.

[6] NCWC News Service Release, 28 April 1958.

[7] Cf. G. Montague, “The Position Today” (as regards vocations in Ireland), in The Furrow, November 1952.

[8] E. Scherer, “Catholicism in South America: Its Prospects” in Christ Unterwegs, October 1954.

[9] L. Ó Broin, “Ireland’s Missionary Work”, in The Month, March 1957.

[10] Cf. T.J. Kiernan, “A Study of Catholic Ecclesiastical and Religious Statistics”, in The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, October 1950.

[11] Cf. K. Smith, S.J., “Priests and People in Ireland”, in The Furrow, March 1958.


Posted on January 11, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Gosh! This was worth reading. Were Maynooth-educated priests really the intellectual equivalent of their European equivalents? Can it be true that it is a good thing that 90% of seminarians had fees paid by their parents because it means that most priests will come from better-class families?

    I wonder how widely accepted this view was.

    • His appendix to the paper, which he alludes to, is also fascinating, and I will post it later. One thing that’s very noticeable is the disproportionate leap in religious clergy compared to the secular clergy: for the former, there were 754 in 1920 and 1717 in 1956 (a 127% increase); for the latter, there were 3081 in 1920 and 3772 in 1956 (a 22% increase)

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