In his first homily as Archbishop following his installation at the Cathedral of the Assumption in Tuam, Dr Francis Duffy said the number answering the call to priesthood “has plummeted in recent decades” and “consequently, there are not enough priests to maintain the present parish arrangements”.
Addressing a tightly restricted congregation of family, close friends, the Papal Nuncio and some bishops, Dr Duffy said: “We have heard all the facts and figures. We just have to look around and see parishes where there were two or three priests there is now one and increasingly there are none, with parishes sharing a priest.”
The Archdiocese of Tuam has seen a dramatic drop in priest numbers over the past two decades, down to 47 from 115 in 1996.
There just two seminarians training for priesthood compared to 14 in 1996.
In response to the ongoing decline in vocations he highlighted that: “Structures have already been modified to meet the current needs and more changes will be necessary, building on good developments that have already taken place”.
The 63-year-old former Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnois said the future of the Church depends on parishioners, as well as the diminishing numbers of clergy and religious, and he paid tribute to the many in the west of Ireland who over past decades answered the call to priesthood and religious life for service at home and abroad.
“You know them, they are your family members, friends and neighbours.”
Of Pope Francis’ plans for synodality for the global church, he said it was timely and exciting.
While it is “the way to go”, he also stressed: “It is not an instant solution. We have to remember it is a pathway not a runway.”
Speaking in Tuam where exhumations at the Mother and Baby home run by the Bon Secours Sisters are due to take place this year, Dr Duffy said: “Truth and justice are important and, in pursuit of both, I am willing to listen and to learn.
“To move forward we must listen to all who have been hurt by their experience of Church.
“Tragically, for some people, daily life was anything but happy or joyful.
“Judgement prevailed and set the scene for harshness, not homeliness. Human dignity was not there for the living or the dead or the bereaved.”
Elsewhere in his homily, Dr Duffy, who succeeds Archbishop Michael Neary, referred to the “terrible journey we have all had due to the virus”.
The number of guests at the installation ceremony had to be greatly reduced because of current risks from the surge in cases of the Omicron variant.
He said many people have suffered greatly during the last two years. “Sadly, for some there has been death and bereavement, illness, loss of employment, risks and isolation.”
While the experience of the lockdowns, the continuing threat [of the virus] and the restrictions have had “a very negative impact on many people”, he said, “We have also witnessed good neighbourliness, and those who continue with essential services and help keep us safe and keep life going as normally as possible.”