Expectations are growing that Pope Francis will address the vocations crisis on his visit to Ireland by opening the door to married men returning to the priesthood.

The pontiff is said to be "acutely aware" of the ever-increasing shortage of priests throughout the country, along with the constantly rising age profile of existing members of the clergy.

However, leading members of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) have said they feel increasingly hopeful that the Pope might address the crisis affecting the Catholic Church here by giving his blessing to married men returning to the fold on a pilot basis.

Read More: Pope Francis hints the time is coming for married priests

Fr. Gerry O'Connor, a leading member of the 1,000-strong ACP, said: "I am certain that Pope Francis and his close supporters are very much aware of how disengaged people in Ireland have become with the Church, and he will be very concerned about it. In fact, he will be almost baffled because for many years Ireland was viewed as exceptional in terms of people's devotion to the Church, and thought of as a country which was unlikely to see a decline.

"But the reality is that there is a significant crisis here, and there is a lack of initiative coming from our Bishops. They are in denial about the depth of the crisis.

“People in Ireland in the past had no problem whatsoever accepting that Patrick had a wife”

Yep, because, priests were married men until, historically, fairy recently in Ireland. So if he didn’t have a wife that would have been considered fairly odd really... https://t.co/z45UU332kO

— Dr Gillian Kenny (@medievalgill) March 17, 2018

"However, I wouldn't be surprised if Pope Francis challenges the Bishops to come up with a solution when he's over here. He did the same last year by making the proposal about married men returning to the fold in the Amazon. He may well make a similar proposal for Ireland. And in my opinion, ordaining married men would be the best short-term solution, and something that could be achieved very quickly."

Read More: Pope Francis believes Ireland and Europe are lost to the Catholic Church

Pope Francis took similar action late last year when he gave the green light to discussions and a possible vote taking place about permitting married men to be ordained in the remote Amazon area of Brazil.

The radical move, which was opposed by conservative elements within the Church, was seen as the most practical way of dealing with the vast region's "catastrophic" shortage of priests.

Pope Francis: Parish priests called to support married couples https://t.co/t9V5ls9cYf @ACCORD_Ireland pic.twitter.com/PIlzEFXGT2

— CatholicNewsIreland (@CathNewsIreland) February 27, 2017

A further document released last month by the Vatican also recommended that a synod, due to take place next year in the Amazon, should consider conferring on women in the area some "type of official ministry".

Now with just weeks to go until Pope Francis makes his historic trip to Ireland, there is increased hope amongst more progressive members of the clergy that similar moves will be announced for Ireland.

Read More: Will Pope Francis allow married priests after 1,000 years? 

Fr. O'Connor, who's a Cork-based Redemptorist, chaired an ACP-led public meeting in Mallow, Co. Cork last Wednesday [July 4]  in a bid to ascertain the main concerns both members of the priesthood and the public have about the Church.

Three more meetings will take place ahead of the Pope's visit - in Tuam, Co. Galway on Wednesday [July 11], Dublin City University on July 18 and in the Kilmore Hotel, Cavan on July 25.

Fr. O'Connor said the ten key areas of concern or proposals for change that emerge from the meetings will be summarised and submitted to the Pope.

Read More: Does Pope Francis owe the Irish people an apology? 

He added: "Ireland is a different country to what it was when Pope John Paul II visited in 1979. We live in a different time, and the Church needs to find a different role. There is also a lot of anger out there towards the Church.

Has Ireland ran out priests? Is it time to allow deacons to say mass. Allow priests to get married & invite women to join? @NewstalkDrive pic.twitter.com/cWU1bxvlLO

— Henry McKean (@HenryMcKean) July 3, 2017

"But I think there's every reason to believe that Ireland will be a more hopeful place after the Pope's visit and that our Church can adapt and move forward.

Do you think married men should be allowed in the clergy in Ireland? Share your thoughts on Facebook or in the comment section. 

Read More: Irish bishop wants to consider ordaining married men