Ireland’s Catholic priests have welcomed the Pope’s readiness to discuss an end to celibacy for the clergy and called on him introduce such a move.

A leading Irish priest has also said that the time has come for the church to consider female priests.

As the Catholic Church fights a continuous fall in the number of clergy, Pope Francis has hinted that priests may be allowed to marry in the future.

And the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland has warmly welcomed the move by the Pontiff.

A report in the Sunday Independent newspaper says that the organization representing Catholic priests in Ireland has called for an end to the Vatican’s celibacy rule.

The Association’s spokesman Fr Seamus Ahearne told the paper that the body warmly welcomed recent comments by Pope Francis hinting that priests may be able to marry in the future.

He said the Pontiff’s views have been hailed as ‘refreshing and uplifting’ by the majority of Irish priests.

Fr Ahearne said: “It’s a new way of looking at things and it makes total sense.

“We raised the question of celibacy with the bishops in the early days of June as an issue to be looked at and the fact that Pope Francis has opened that discussion matters.

“Our view would be that Christ takes flesh in the messiness of everyday life. The wider the ministry the better, it’s the mixture that is necessary.

“It can’t just be male – old males, celibate males – it has to be a mixture of male, female, young people, old people, married people and unmarried people, anyone.”

Father Ahearne also told the paper that it is now a matter of time before the Catholic Church begins to reconsider its stance on women joining the priesthood.

He added: “I think it’s going to happen eventually. Who would ever have thought that Francis could have been elected?

“Who would ever have thought that the kind of things he is saying could be said? When will it happen? I have no idea, but it should.

“It takes a while for any discussion, it takes a while for things to grow. Look at the age profile of priests, there is no replacement for those who retire or die.

“Priests are going on until they are 75 or 80, when they could be retired at 65. They can’t carry the load.”

Vocations in Ireland hit a record low in 2012 when just 12 men joined the priesthood.

The European Federation of Married Catholic Priests says that more than 100,000 men have left the priesthood to get married.