An article I stumbled across at got me thinking about the Catholic Church in Ireland. The article says that Ireland is known as the "Land of Saints and Scholars," "but it would welcome a lot more of the latter." That's probably true, but I doubt too many people would object if we had an influx of saints as well as scholars.

For generations the Catholic Church in Ireland sent priests and nuns to America, Britain, Canada, Australia, and just about anywhere English was spoken. The Irish Church also produced thousands of missionaries who went to Africa (mostly), South America, Asia and other places. Their success can be seen in parishes and dioceses in Africa and elsewhere. And now, maybe here too.

Yesterday I went to a different church, not my own parish. The Mass was said by an African priest. It was obvious he was not there just for the week seeking support for the Church in Africa as would have been the case years ago. No, this man is based in this parish. Our own parish also had an African priest until very recently. I've seen other African priests in and Dublin as well.

What's going on here? Well, I don't know. I can only guess. I know the priest who was at our parish was in Ireland to complete his PhD. Maybe all these priests are the same - pursuing higher education opportunities. Or maybe they're here simply to improve their English.

Regardless their presence is, for the moment, interesting but it could prove crucial in the years to come if the Church is to recover after all the recent scandalous revelations. The average Irish priest is old and seems tired and burdened. Who can blame them with so many people willing to tar them all with the same brush? These days it seems the phrase 'pedophile priest' is just everywhere.

The African priests are, in contrast, young, energetic, enthusiastic and unburdened by the Irish Church's problems. These men seem to relish being here and, from what I can see, the people in the pews love them.

Although these African priests are not officially missionaries - at least I don't think they are - they are really on the missions in Ireland. Sure they might leave with a degree and with a great deal of goodwill for their work back in Africa, but they could be the spark that relights the Church in Ireland.

At the moment with so many churches only half full of mostly gray-haired people, the energy and the joy of these men is completely off the scale from what most Irish people experience in a church these days. Even teenagers and younger children seem more alive in the church when these men are on the altar smiling and speaking and singing - often badly, but loudly.

I presume the Church in Africa can't spare any more of these men, but if it's at all possible the Irish bishops should seek out more of them. The Church needs these 'missionaries' here in Ireland. They can come as scholars and do a saint's work while here.