Declining manpower leads Society of Jesus to announce it will withdraw from Ribble Valley parish, ending more than 300 years of service to local Catholics
BY ED WEST
DECLINING vocations have foxed the Jesuits to pull out of a historic Lancashire parish.
The Society of Jesus are to leave the parish of St Michael and St John's in the Ribble VaHey town of Clitheroe as a result of manpower shortages.
The parish will be handed over to the Diocese of Salford which will serve it with a secular priest, The Society has provided a priest in the parish since 1794, but has had to leave as a result of falling clergy numbers.
Fr Joseph Duggan will leave in the autumn, ending two centuries of Jesuit presence in the east Lancashire market town.
The church was founded from the Jesuit-run Stonyhurst College, the nearby independent school, from where a Jesuit priest used to commute. A resident priest was appointed in 1840, some 11 years after Catholic emancipation.
Ged Clapson, spokesman for the British Province of the Society of Jesus, said: "The Jesuits have always taken on parishes when there were clergy shortages.
"It's always our way to go when the needs were greatest, and that's when they set up a parish. But society changes, circumstances change, and now there are other areas to turn to. It's a case of priorities."
He added: "We don't make any bones about the fact that there are fewer men to go around. When numbers are stretched, the proper business thing to do is to re-allocate men, where men can be used better. We need to think about priorities."
The Society of Jesus, founded in 1540, has 19, 216 priests. brothers and novitiates in 112 countries.
But their numbers have declined in recent years and the order has been unable to replace the number of priests who die each year. Last year there were 364 fewer Jesuits than in 2006.
And while they remain strong in South America and especially India, their decline in the West is marked.
This week the order also pulled out of a church in Minnesota, SS Peter and Paul, after 134 years in the parish.
In Britain, where there are 200 Jesuits in Britain across 17 parishes, four of them in Lancashire, the Order has retreated from several parishes in the last decade.
In July 2005 the Order returned the parish of Corpus Christi in Brixton, south London, to the Archdiocese of Southwark, ending a period of service dating back to 1980.
A spokesman at the time said the Jesuits viewed the hand-over with "a mixture of celebration, pride and sadness-.
In April 2004 the Jesuits handed over the keys of Sacred Heart in Blackpool to Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue of Lancaster.
The four Jesuit priests and one Jesuit brother were reassigned to Society of Jesus communities in north London and Edinburgh.
The then British Provincial, Fr David Smolira, said at the time: "We must do so while taking full account of the significant reduction of our numbers in the last 30 to 40 years. The Society of Jesus is essentially a missionary order, going where the needs are greatest and where the work is not being done by others."
In 2003 the Jesuits also left two parishes in Wiltshire, Tisbury and Wardour.
If current trends continue there will be just 70 Jesuits left in Britain by 2014.
In February Pope Benedict XVI issued a reminder to the Jesuits to be faithful to the Church.
"The Church needs you, counts on you and continues to turn to you with trust," he said in a frank speech to 200 members of the General Congregation.
Fr Adolfo Nicolas, who was elected superior general of the order in January, told the Holy Father that "it saddens us" when people tried to present the Jesuits as a group of rebel theologians opposed to Church teaching and the hierarchy.
In the same month the Pope told the committee of the International Union of Superiors General he was aware that the Jesuits had suffered a "difficult crisis due to the ageing of members, a more or less accentuated fall in vocations and, sometimes, a spiritual and charismatic 'weariness'".
The Jesuits in Britain have been trying to decide how best to live their vocations in view of the trends within the Society.
They are stin heavily involved in evangelisation initiatives and working with the poor and with refugees.
Last month Fr Peter Scally, writing in their British journal Thinking Faith, said that Gordon Brown needed "to regain the moral high ground" and demonstrate his "earnest and serious commitment to fairness, honesty and justice-.