"It would take real courage, deep faith and strong conviction to offer oneself as a candidate for the priesthood or religious life in a culture as hostile to faith as ours," Bishop of Kilmore, Most Rev Leo O'Reilly told the welcome Mass for the relics of St Oliver Plunkett last week.
Addressing the congregation at the Kilmore Diocesan Pastoral Centre, Bishop O’Reilly made his comments in the context that at this time of year Bishops nationwide are considering parish appointments, the annual diocesan changes. The reason being he explained was that any vacancies would be filled by new priests, recently ordained and waiting for appointments.
"Some of us remember a time when there were more newly ordained priests than vacancies. When that happened some of the newly ordained men would go to another diocese, usually in England or Scotland, where they might spend some years before a vacancy arose at home."
But Bishop O'Reilly stated that such days are "long gone", with only one ordination for the Diocese of Kilmore in the past 13 years, and just one student in the seminary.
While welcoming the arrival of overseas priests, as well as some retired missionaries to boost numbers, Bishop O'Reilly spared a thought for the situation his successor will face in ten years' time.
"I have to confess it looks bleak enough," lamented Bishop O'Reilly. "Unless there is a dramatic change in the vocations trend, we will then have less than 30 priests, perhaps about 25, for our 34 parishes."
In contrast Bishop O'Reilly reminded the congregation that St Oliver Plunkett, when returning to Ireland in 1670 as Archbishop of Armagh, faced the prospect of persecution under the Penal Laws.
"He was the only bishop in the whole province of Armagh, which then had 11 dioceses. There were only a handful of churches because church building had been outlawed. There were very few priests and they were demoralised and divided into different factions."
Describing Archbishop Oliver Plunkett as "a true shepherd who cared for his flock and not for himself", Bishop O'Reilly noted how the now saint set about working tirelessly carrying out thousands of Confirmations and ordained hundreds of priests.
But he added that the Catholic church in Ireland currently faces a "crisis of vocations" which the Bishop believes is rooted in a "deeper crisis of faith".
"We have to acknowledge that part of the reason for this is the sins and failures of Church people themselves which have caused great scandal and undermined the faith of many. Another reason is surely the challenge of life-long priestly celibacy in a culture that is unsympathetic to chastity and short on long-term commitments.
"However, I believe another important reason is the hostility to the Church that is now a settled part of our society's culture."
While not physical persecution, Bishop O'Reilly believes there to be a "subtle" denigration of religious beliefs, practices and institutions on radio, television and on social and other media
"I don't think you have to be paranoid to believe that there is a kind of persecution of the Church taking place here all the same.
"It is not physical persecution but it is no less real for that. It is more subtle. It takes the form of gradual exclusion of Church people or activities from the public space," he said, adding that there is often a focus on bad news about the Church to the almost total exclusion of any good news.
"In this kind of situation it would almost be a surprise that anyone would want to consider devoting their lives to being a priest or religious," the Bishop told those in attendance.
In venerating the relics of St Oliver Plunkett the Bishop asked those present to pray that "many young people, and perhaps not so young, may experience God's call to priesthood or religious life."