Northern Ireland

Priest shortage will mean not every family can have Requiem Mass, bishop warns

A growing shortage of priests in Down and Connor will soon mean it is no longer possible to provide a funeral Mass for every family, a bishop has warned.

Bishop Donal McKeown is in charge of the Diocese of Derry and took on a second role in January as the Apostolic Administrator for Down and Connor.

In a pastoral letter issued on Sunday, he warned that dwindling numbers of young people joining the priesthood means it will grow increasingly difficult to meet demand in the coming years.

Outlining the challenges, he said the "statistical realities" meant it was necessary to change how priests were supported.

Around 84 priests are currently in active ministry in an area with 86 parishes and 146 churches.

With only seven priests in the diocese aged under 40, he said that in just over 10 years the number of priests in active ministry would be almost half what it is today.

"Within 15 years, and for the first time in the history of the diocese, will have more retired priests than priests in active ministry."

In 20 years, Bishop McKeown predicted that only 24 priests would be available to cover 86 parishes.

Calling on lay people to become more involved, he said it was no longer fair to ask priests to keep on "workloads and demands that are unreasonable and not sustainable".

With around 3,000 funerals and 800 marriages celebrated in the diocese each year being priest-led in the context of the Mass, he said meeting these "unsustainable expectations" was no longer possible.

This summer, some parishes are already set to take part in pilot projects where lay people help families prepare for funerals and lead prayers at gravesides or the crematorium.

"Very soon, it is also likely that in some parishes, the celebration of Requiem Mass for every individual as part of the funeral rites may no longer be the norm." 

Bishop McKeown is set to continue in his dual role until a permanent Diocesan Bishop for Down and Connor can be appointed.

Until then, he is effectively managing the largest pastoral area on the island of Ireland - including 51 parishes in the Diocese of Derry with 260,000 Catholics and a further 406,000 Catholics across the 86 parishes in Down and Connor.

Fr Gary Donegan has recently returned as an administrator to Holy Cross Church in Ardoyne.

He told The Irish News that Bishop McKeown's comments rang true, noting that it was rare for him to have any significant time off.

He also said that, at times, there could be angry reactions from people who weren't regular church goers when they learned a priest was not available to cover a funeral.

"Regular, practising Catholics will be very aware of this issue. In my own situation, I've recently had to take over again as parish priest in Ardoyne.

"That means I'm double jobbing as I'm also director of the passionist priest peace and reconciliation office."

During his previous time in Ardoyne there were four priests, which has now reduced to two.

"At one stage, as a religious order, there were 24 priests and four brothers on the site of Holy Cross.

"In the last few weeks there has now been several nights when I've been the only passionist present on the site of Holy Cross, which is quite an amazing public statement."

He also covered a funeral in west Belfast last week where no priest was available and will often call in favours so he can assist other struggling parishes.

"The reality is that there's no down time. I can't remember the last weekend I had that was time out," he said.

"My big thing in life is going to gaelic football matches and I also had to cancel a recent holiday to France.

"That's because weekends are taken up with weddings and first communions. I have two funerals this week as well.

"What Bishop Donal is saying is true. Where it really impinges is the reality of people who don't practice and expect exactly the same service as before when they haven't journeyed along.

"They're shocked by that and in some cases angered by it. Some people get quite in your face about it.

"One Sunday at Mass I said ' I could turn round and say, how many sons have you given to church?'

"I've given up a wife, a family and normality as I see it. What have you sacrificed?' You could say that to people, but you don't."

He added: "So there's going to have to be some very painful decisions made in the short term."

Asked why fewer young people were joining the church, he said the idea of giving up on having a family to be on call seven days a week with little pay was a hard sell.

"You're also only as good as your last game. If you make a mistake you're in the public eye all the time.

"To say that to a young person today, it takes a very particular kind of person to be attracted to that and they're few and far between."

Michael Kelly, Editor of the Irish Catholic Newspaper, said the situation in Down and Connor was reflected across Ireland and the church was now approaching "a demographic cliff edge" with the number of priests retiring.

"If you have a situation where you have 10 or 12 priests retiring and really only one priest being ordaned, which is the situation in most Irish diocese at the moment, that tells its own story," he said.

"The key message here is that if parishioners want their churches to thrive into the future, then they're going to have to take more responsibility.

"This model that we've had of just expecting the priest to do everything is just not going to be possible in the future.

He added:  "Priests don't really like to talk about this, but it's the people that contribute the least in terms of their commitments have the highest expectations.

"If you go to Mass every Sunday, then you will have noticed your priests getting older and fewer. As a result, your expectations lower, but that's not the case for people who don't attend regularly.

"This is when a priest gets forced into a situation of trying to keep the show on the road and be a service provider. Particularly in parishes with more older people, you have so many funerals which take a lot of time."

Mr Kelly said it may also be time for Ireland to reconsider the custom of holding funerals within days compared to a normal wait of around two to three weeks in England, Scotland and Wales.