In a period of abrupt change of people’s expectations and life directions, Bridget Fitzsimons examines the influences of those who choose a life devoted to religion.

While religion may not be on the tips of everyone’s tongues these days, the lack of jobs in our economic climate definitely is. Some of us are content with hurling our CVs anywhere that will take them, however, it seems that a select few are opting for a very different career path.

Although it is very clear that the number of priests in Ireland is rapidly declining, there are still a few young men who choose to enter the seminary here in Ireland. It seems quite alien in our world of quick fixes and conspicuous consumption that someone of a younger generation would be willing to devote their life to a higher spiritual meaning, but it is still happening.

This is not a widespread occurrence however. Statistics for young men entering the seminary have been steadily declining. In our times, becoming a priest is simply not the given thing to do. It seems as if our faith in the church has been lost and that young men today just are not willing to take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.

The average age of a priest in 2008 was estimated at 61, which is already quite close to retirement age. In 2007, 160 priests died while nine were ordained. For nuns, the figures were even worse. 228 nuns died in 2007 and only two took their vows. With the lack of young men joining, it is estimated that by 2028, the number of priests will have dropped sharply by two-thirds.

Questions surrounding the decline in interest in this vocation are inevitably being raised. After the several scandals involving the Church, including the shocking and numerous child sexual abuse cases, is this why young men are refusing to enter the seminary?

For former UCD student, James Byrne, it was simply a matter of faith. After a school retreat, the former atheist realised a deep set feeling of faith and love for God within him. He describes his former self as “very angry” and explains that he was “doing a meditation and this feeling came over me and everything felt okay.”

“It was just me realising but I became much more accepting of other people’s faiths and then I developed my own. I saw that the Catholic Church isn’t a wall; it’s another way of exploring one’s faith and become closer to God.”

“Church has become inaccessible for many and often people just do not bother”

In a time where religion is not as highly emphasised as it used to be, Byrne’s views are interesting. He characterises entering training for a religious vocation as a calling but clarifies that “people say that you get a calling, but it’s not always a calling like the clouds open up and God appears and tells you that he wants you to be a priest!”

Instead, Byrne’s drive to enter the priesthood was brought on by intuition. “I believe that God communicates to people through feelings a lot of the time and there is that feeling there.”

Byrne eventually left his training, because he felt he lacked the life experience necessary for such a huge role. Of this, he says that “I think that if you’re going to be in a role where you are, to use an image that Jesus used, a shepherd of a flock you’re going to have to have some life experience.”

While his views are refreshing, there is no doubt that they are in the minority. A young man entering the priesthood is not something we hear of regularly. Byrne describes his entry as a “calling” and one must wonder why these callings have diminished hugely in the last few years. It seems that religious callings may not be enough for the majority to give up the material possessions and sexual gratification for a devotion to God.

It seems as if the calling Byrne experienced lies in the revelation he had at his retreat. While, for Byrne, God communicates to him through the feelings he has, for others it is not as easy. Church has become inaccessible for many and often people just do not bother. For Byrne, the realisation that the Catholic Church isn’t a wall contributed hugely to his decision to enter the priesthood.

Arguably, it seems that if the Catholic Church was more open and more accepting of a wide variety of people and lifestyle choices they currently shun, entry into the priesthood would be higher. Byrne concludes by speculating that religious work could await him in the future – “if it’s something that I feel called to” – and that religion still plays a part in his everyday life.

While for many, the thought of a religious vocation is unthinkable, Byrne is proving that there are still young people interested and participating in religion. Sadly, however, for the Catholic Church, there is not enough to stem the flow of priests who are either leaving every year.