Implications of fall-off in priest numbers outlined in two rural Catholic dioceses

Bishop of Ferns appeals for people to resume attending Masses in person as they did before Covid-19 pandemic

The stark decline in the number of priests has been outlined in a Lenten pastoral letter by Bishop of Achonry Paul Dempsey, while the Bishop of Ferns, Ger Nash, has appealed to people to personally attend Masses as they did before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Achonry diocese, one of the smallest and most rural in Ireland, covering parishes in Mayo, Sligo and Roscommon, has had no ordination in 10 years and has no seminarian currently studying for the priesthood.

“At best, there will be 12 priests serving in the 23 parishes of our diocese in 10 years time,” Bishop Dempsey said.

“It is important that we are fully aware of this reality and its implications. We have never been here before,” he said.


It would mean “having to let go of some of the familiar ways we have experienced parish life in the past”, he said, recalling how in 2009 Pope Benedict “reminded us that `the lay faithful must no longer be viewed as collaborators of the clergy but as `co-responsible’ for the Church’s being and action’”.

‘Bold and creative’

Bishop Dempsey hoped that over coming months people in the diocese would be “bold and creative”, as Pope Francis suggested, in discussions on the future with members of the Parish Pastoral Councils, deacons, religious and priests.

Last November it emerged that in the Killala diocese, which includes 22 parishes in north Mayo and Sligo, the number of priests there could be reduced from 23 to eight within five years.

Writing about this recently in the Western People, Fr Brendan Hoban, a priest in the diocese, said “the clear, incontrovertible truth was that the ever-declining number of priests would not be able to provide more than minimal service to the people of the diocese and if the Catholic Church was to survive in any effective form, lay Catholics would have to step up to the mark”.

At a meeting in Ballina last November, four lay ‘ministries’ were presented to those in attendance. These involved bringing Communion to the housebound; visitation of those in need or at risk; leaders of lay liturgies; and ‘accompaniment’, which would see a role for lay people and a priest at a funeral, for example.

Initially this ‘funeral team’ would include a priest and lay funeral minister leading prayers in the home or funeral home, in receiving the remains at the church, participating together at the funeral Mass and in the prayers at the cemetery.

A programme began at the Newman Institute in Ballina last month providing practical training for lay Catholics in parish liturgy and pastoral ministry.

Benefits and blessings

Meanwhile, Bishop Nash said “I gently invite people who have not been back in Church since before the pandemic to rethink their decision this Lent and to come back to Sunday Mass so that they will enjoy its benefits and blessings in their lives”.

The Bishop of Ferns, which covers most of Co Wexford, said it was his firm belief “that parishes need to play their part in the return to worship and to be innovative and imaginative in building up the Christian community again”.

“In churches where Covid restrictions are still in place I encourage them to be relaxed so that a sense of normality can be restored to our Sunday celebration.”

He also encouraged priests and parents in the diocese “to re-establish the ministry of Altar servers where it has been lost”.

“When I visit the schools, the teenagers I speak to who served Mass, without exception, remember it as a time when they were connected to church. We yearn for the participation of young people generally in Church life and so we need to take positive steps to encourage it.”

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times