Catholic bishops in Eire may be planning ‘priestless parishes’

The Catholic bishops are drawing up radical new plans for parishes to hold Sunday services led by laypeople as more-and-more communities are set to be left without a priest for the first time. The problem will also become acute as larger parishes used to having several priests are being left with only one priest to serve several churches.

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.

Sources have confirmed to The Irish Catholic that the matter is to be discussed at a meeting of the hierarchy in Maynooth in October. A ‘discussion document’ will be circulated to senior Church leaders in coming weeks which will set our plans for what parishioners can do when there is no priest to say Mass. Laypeople will be expected to take a lead role. However, married deacons, eight of whom have already been ordained, will also co-ordinate liturgies in the absence of a priest.

It comes as it has emerged that Archbishop of Dublin Dr Diarmuid Martin did not give his permission for a nun to lead a communion service in a Co. Wicklow parish at the weekend.

According to listeners to Liveline on RTÉ Radio One, parishioners turned up as usual for Sunday evening Mass in Blessington. However, when no priest turned up, a religious sister who was present led a liturgy, preached a homily and distributed Holy Communion to those present.

A spokeswoman for Archbishop Martin told The Irish Catholic 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 resort to the plan seeing it as a last resort.

It is understood the 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 of priests retire each year just a handful of newly-ordained men are available to take their place. It’s a far cry from 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 scarce 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.

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