By Cian Molloy - 05 February, 2018
The declining numbers of available clergy and religious lend a sense of urgency to this development.
Contingency plans are being prepared in the Limerick diocese for a time when there won’t be 1 priest available for each of its 60 parishes.
Already, Limerick’s parishes have been grouped together into nine pastoral areas, with these areas providing “an opportunity for parishes to work together in such a way that individual parishes are supported in their efforts to ensure that they will continue to exist as vibrant communities of faith into the future”.
A diocesan statement said that while the experience of the diocese “of such inter-parish co-operation in the diocese has been mission-centred rather than utilitarian or pragmatic”, there is an awareness “that the declining numbers of available clergy and religious lend a sense of urgency to this development”.
There are currently 65 priests in active ministry in the diocese, but 27 are due to retire within the next 10 years. The last time a new diocesan priest was ordained in Limerick was in 2014 and, looking at seminary enrolments, it will be “at least another four years” before the next priest for the diocese is ordained.
Yesterday, in an interview with The Limerick Leader newspaper, Bishop Brendan Leahy said the pastoral model for the future involves priests being shared between parishes, and lay people taking on a greater role in the running of parish activities and services.
Following a diocesan synod in 2016, the following key roles that could be filled by lay people were identified: pastoral leaders, lay catechists, membership of baptism teams and leading funeral prayers.
“We are faced with many challenges, but these can also be opportunities for new ways and new life,” he told the paper.
At present, Bishop Leahy is conducting a review of diocesan logistics with his Episcopal Vicar for Pastoral Planning Fr Éamonn Fitzgibbon and the pastoral implementation manager Rose O’Connor.
Over the coming months, meetings are to be held to consult with parishioners on how best new structures could work for them. One thing that is certain is that the needs of each parish vary significantly, depending on their location and the number of amenities that come within their ambit.
“For example, some parishes may have a number of primary schools and some have at least one secondary school; others have third level colleges or hospitals or nursing homes,” said the Bishop. “Some parishes have more than one church and indeed, some have three.”
Another issue for the review to examine is how the diocese can best provide a youth ministry. But one of the biggest headaches of all is finance. Previously, diocesan clerics’ income came chiefly from the weekly church plate collection; but as congregation numbers decline, so too does the level of weekly offerings.
“With the fall-off in Mass attendance, the income source is no longer sufficient,” said the Bishop. “Yet the number of services, from regular Mass to sacramental moments in life like weddings, funerals, christenings, has not declined.”
Nevertheless, Bishop Leahy told the newspaper that he remains ever hopeful: “God has a plan and we are co-operating with the unfolding of that plan every day.”