THE CATHOLIC CHURCH in Ireland is laying down plans for parishes that may be left without a priest as the number of clergymen continues to decline.
According to an exclusive report in The Irish Catholic newspaper, bishops are drawing up proposals for parishes to hold Sunday services led by laypeople for the first time.
Deputy Editor Michael Kelly says the problem in larger parishes will become more acute in future as churches who used to have a number of priests will be left with just one. “As the number of priests continues to decline and faced with an increasingly older age profile, Church leaders are being forced to take radical action that just a few years ago would have seemed unthinkable.”
Citing sources, the newspaper said the matter is to be discussed at a meeting of the church’s hierachy in Maynooth in October. Prior to that, a discussion document which will set out ideas for what parishioners can do when there is no priest to say Mass will be circulated to senior leaders.
Laypeople will be expected to take a lead role but married deacons, eight of whom have already been ordained, will co-ordinate liturgies in the absence of a priest.
Today’s report comes after it emerged that a nun was not granted permission to lead a communion service at a county Wicklow parish last weekend.
RTÉ’s Liveline reported that a religious sister led a liturgy, preached a homily and distributed Holy Communion after a priest failed to turn up for the Sunday evening mass in Blessington. One listener described the celebration as “absolutely lovely and very moving”.
A spokesperson for Archbishop Diarmuid Martin told The Irish Catholic that the liturgy in Blessington was “unprecedented” and described it as a “one-off event”.
She confirmed that for Sunday celebrations to take place in the absence of a priest, the explicit permission of the archbishop ought to have been sought.
Such services are commonplace in parts of continental Europe where the vocations crisis has left many parishes without priests. However, Church leaders in Ireland have been reluctant to adopt the plan, seeing it as a last resort.
It is understood Irish bishops are keen that the term ‘communion service’ is not used to avoid confusion among parishioners who may think they are attending Mass.
It will also be made clear that such services should only happen in exceptional circumstances where there is no possibility of getting a priest. While the hierarchy will make provision for services with Communion on a Sunday, it is understood that weekday celebrations with the distribution of Holy Communion will not be sanctioned. Instead, parishioners will be trained to lead services with readings from the Scriptures.
Church leaders are increasingly faced with the dilemma of what to do when there is no priest to celebrate Mass. The average age of priests in Irish parishes is 64 and as scores retire each year, just a handful of newly-ordained men are available to take their place. This compares to the 1960s and 1970s when a newly-ordained Irish priest would have to spend the first few years of his priesthood abroad, having no hope of securing a vacancy at home.
The Irish bishops would have to apply to the Vatican for the plans to be approved, something that the Holy See has already done for several other countries including France, Belgium, the United States and Australia.
The Irish Catholic is out today.