The Catholic Church in Ireland has launched an initiative to urge young men to consider joining the priesthood in an attempt to arrest a rapid decline in numbers.
Just ten seminarians began their studies at St. Patrick's Pontifical University in Maynooth last year, which is actually an increase on the nine seminarians that began training for the priesthood in 2021.
In total, there were 56 men studying for the priesthood in Irish dioceses in 2022.
Meanwhile, a report last year found that fewer than 2.5% of Irish priests are under the age of 40, adding that Ireland may lose a quarter of its priests over the next 15 years.
The Archdiocese of Dublin announced last December that it was amalgamating its 199 parishes into 53 super parishes by June 2023 to help cope with the shortage of priests, with priests now expected to oversee several parishes at once.
According to the Catholic News Agency, there are currently 2,116 priests serving a total of 2,650 churches in Ireland, while more than a third of the priests in the country are over the age of 60.
Addressing a congregation in County Mayo last July, Archbishop of Tuam Francis Duffy said the only thing certain about the Catholic Church in Ireland is the "ongoing and sustained decline" of parishioners and priests.
"I suggest you look at your priest, he may be the last in a long line of resident pastors and may not be replaced," Bishop Duffy told a congregation at St. Mary's Church in Westport.
"I suggest you look at your church, you may be lucky to have a Sunday Mass or several, but for how much longer?"
The Tuam Archdiocese has since announced plans for lay-led liturgies in churches where no priest is available to help cope with the shortage.
The church's new year-long vocational initiative, which was launched on Vocations/Good Shepherd Sunday on April 30, attempts to address the rapid decline in numbers. The theme of the year-long initiative is "Take a Risk for Christ".
Vocations Ireland, an organization that is part of the Association of Leaders of Missionaries and Religious of Ireland, will hold events throughout the year aimed at highlighting the different vocations within the Catholic Church.
Waterford Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan is a driving force behind the new initiative and hopes that it will inspire conversations among families.
The new campaign was launched on the 60th anniversary of the initiation of the annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations, which was introduced by Pope Paul VI during the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.
Fr Vincent Stapleton, a curate in the Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly, is the only priest in his diocese under the age of 50 and told RTÉ News that he would often turn heads when people realized how young he was.
"I think people are used to me now, but when I’d turn up at Hurling matches; you'd have people turning in their seats to look and they’d say, a young priest and we haven't seen a young priest in so long," Fr. Stapleton told RTÉ News.
The Catholic Church has conceded that young men joining the priesthood is counter-cultural in modern-day Ireland.