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Tuesday, 26 March, 2002, 11:29 GMT
Only one priest for Northern Ireland
Chris Ferguson
Chris Ferguson will be ordained in July 2002
As the Christian calendar's most important date of Easter approaches, BBC Northern Ireland's Spotlight programme looks at the sharp drop in ordinations to the Irish Catholic priesthood.

Chris Ferguson is a man in 700,000.

The reason? That is the number of Catholics in Northern Ireland and he is the only one who will be ordained a priest there this year.

The dramatic fall in vocations to the priesthood is illustrated by the number of men studying at Saint Patrick's seminary at Maynooth, west of Dublin.

In the mid-80s there were more than 300 seminarians, today there are about 70.

Maynooth College, County Kildare
Maynooth College, County Kildare

After eight years of study, Chris Ferguson's own ordination is planned for July in his home diocese of Derry.

He admits: "When people mentioned that I am the only person being ordained in the north this year it was a shock.

"I wouldn't panic but a lot of people are going to have to change expectations in terms of the way the parishes are run and the numbers of priests that are going to be present."

Northern Ireland's biggest Catholic diocese is Down and Conor with 88 parishes across Belfast and parts of counties Antrim and Down.

The last time before this year there was no ordinations in this sprawling diocese was 1893.

The Celtic Tiger doesn't sit easily with the Lamb of God

Fr John McManus

But the Rector of St Malachy's Seminary in Belfast, Father John McManus, insists it is not a crisis but a wake-up call to Catholics.

"It's not a time for pessimism, it's a wake-up call for people to simply consider the priesthood."

But people are in other parts of the world. The Irish Church is bucking a wider trend.

Since John Paul II became Pope, vocations worldwide have soared.

Chris serves Holy Communion
Is there a crisis of faith among Irish Catholics?

However, these are mainly in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa, not the affluent countries of the West.

Father McManus believes Ireland's economic boom is a factor for the reduction on Irish shores.

"The Celtic Tiger doesn't sit easily with the Lamb of God, " he argues.

Ordination of women

Broadcaster and feminist Pat Coyle, who is also a practicing Catholic, disagrees with this analysis.

She says the Church has alienated young Catholics and many women, by refusing to move with the times, change its position on issues like contraception, celibacy and the ordination of women.

She advises: "Listen to the voices on the margins, to the women who have walked away and listen to the Catholics who are feeling increasingly alienated.

"There is no drop in vocations to the broad people of God who want to serve in so many ways."

See also:

21 Feb 01 | Europe
Analysis: Choosing the next pope
12 Jan 00 | UK
A nun on the run from Rome
04 May 99 | Entertainment
O'Connor becomes a 'priest'
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