Editorial: Catholic Church confronting collapse in numbers of priests

Falling numbers of priests means Mass will not be celebrated as widely
Falling numbers of priests means Mass will not be celebrated as widely

There have been warnings before from the Catholic Church about the challenges associated with the decline in the number of priests but rarely has the alarm been sounded as clearly and as loudly as it has this week by Bishop Donal McKeown.

In a pastoral letter to the Diocese of Down and Connor, Dr McKeown, who is its Apostolic Administrator alongside being Bishop of Derry, has candidly set out the scale of the looming crisis.

Today, Down and Connor has 86 parishes and 146 churches which are served by 84 priests. In around a decade, there will be fewer than half as many priests for the north's largest diocese.

By 2043, it is forecast that there will be only 24 priests for a diocese which stretches from Portaferry to Portstewart, from the shores of Lough Neagh to Larne, and which includes the city of Belfast. Today, just seven priests in the diocese are aged under 40.

These are stark statistics. The picture is echoed in other Catholic dioceses; Protestant Churches are wrestling with similar issues.

Little wonder Dr McKeown says that "the approach to ministry and leadership we have been used to for many years simply has to change".

That will mean an end to the custom of daily Mass being available in every parish. Priests lead around 3,000 funerals and 800 marriages in Down and Connor each year, and that too will have to change; nor will these celebrations take place in the context of Mass.

Indeed, Dr McKeown says that it will very soon be the case that Requiem Mass for every individual may no longer be the norm.

This points to lay people playing a more active role in ministry than has traditionally been the case.

In Down and Connor, for example, some parishes will see lay women and men helping families prepare for funerals and leading the prayers at gravesides or the crematorium as part of a pilot project starting this summer.

Many will see developments of this sort as positive, as an opportunity for laity to play a fuller role in the life of the Church.

Others will be less persuaded. Fr Gary Donegan of Holy Cross in Ardoyne says this can be the case with people who don't practise the faith but "expect exactly the same service as before".

If the Catholic Church is to have a sustainable future and play a positive role in society, it cannot be 'service as usual'. Many within – and without – the Church will be watching eagerly to see where Down and Connor's 'Pathways to the Future' initiative leads.