READERS of the Limerick Leader based in the city area could be seen shaking their heads sadly in newsagents upon sight of this Monday’s front page headline, which declared: ‘Dominican order to withdraw from city’.
The Dominicans have had a presence in Limerick since 1227 and this week’s news has been met with general dismay. While numbers attending Mass have declined, in line with churches around the country, the Dominicans remains a popular place of worship with a loyal congregation.
Fr Brendan Clifford, one of only three remaining priests in the local Dominican community, told the Leader that some of those who attend Mass at the church have been coming for “50 or 60 years”. They will, of course, be particularly sad at this development. A lack of manpower has been cited as the principal reason.
We in Limerick have now seen a third order announce its intention to withdraw services, following on from the equally disappointing departures of the Jesuits and Franciscans.
And yet, there is still no clear sign that Rome recognises the scale of the crisis over falling vocations, with a 20% drop-off in the number of Catholic priests in Ireland over the past five years - down to 2,050 active diocesan priests this year from 2,536 in 2009.
The case for women priests, for the ordination of married men of suitable standing and for the recall of former priests who left the church in order to marry is now, surely, overwhelming.
The scandals that beset the church in recent times have clearly had a significant impact on both its ability to find new priests and on attendances. We can only hope that the most serious transgressions have already been put in the public domain. We have heard priests on the ground asking their parishioners in increasingly urgent language if they can encourage friends and family members to consider the priesthood, but this approach – while understandable – is never going to rescue the situation.
Unless we see transformational change, the Catholic Church will continue to decline in Limerick and the rest of the country. It seems unlikely that the demise of a small but historically significant church in Limerick would find its way onto the radar of Pope Francis in Rome, but this week’s news is a microcosm of the church’s biggest problem in this country.
Is it too much to expect that he will oversee the kind of change that turns its fortunes around?
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