Irish Catholic Church set to go back to the future by embracing laity and women

Decline in priest numbers means a significant chapter in the life of the institution is drawing to a close

In June 2018, the somewhat less than shy and retiring Josepha Madigan — then minister for culture — stepped into the breach at a Saturday evening Mass in the Church of St Therese in Mount Merrion, Dublin, when the designated priest did not arrive.

An active member of the parish, Madigan was to give a reading at the Mass but, seizing the moment, led a Liturgy of the Word which involved a Mass without a reading of the gospel or consecration of bread and wine — functions reserved for a priest.

There was some pre-consecrated bread and wine in the tabernacle, so Madigan and a female minister of the Eucharist were able to distribute Communion to the hundreds in attendance.

The incident caused a furore, not least as Madigan is a known supporter of women priests in the Catholic Church. But many complaints were rooted more in a sensitivity towards popular (and now late) parish priest Fr Tony Coote (55), who had motor neuron disease and needed another priest to say Mass on that occasion. Due to confusion, this priest failed to turn up.

Madigan’s intervention offers an insight into the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland. What she did that Saturday will, within a decade, be replicated at Masses all over this island as women — the backbone of parishes — assume a greater role in lay ministry. They will not have to be ordained to do so.

Lay women will conduct Liturgies of the Word, baptisms, marriages, funerals and also play a leading role in catechetics (religious instruction). Lay men will too, but it is women who are most likely to rise to these tasks, given they have always been the foundation of faith in Ireland, as elsewhere.

Madigan is not an original, at least in what she did in her parish that June evening in 2018. Ten years earlier, the former Dominican priest David Rice wrote in this newspaper about what he witnessed in France’s Catholic diocese of Nice where, in 2001, its 265 parishes were rationalised to 47.

He recalled how a recently created parish there, Nôtre Dame de l’Espérance, had five churches and just one priest. Each church had an appointed lay person, a “relais local”, whose duty was to run both church and parish, and to perform almost all functions of the priest except uttering the words of consecration and administering those sacraments reserved for priests.

A woman was the general manager of all five churches and lay people conducted visitations, attended to counselling and pre-marriage instruction, attended the sick, brought Communion, acted as chaplains to hospitals, retirement homes and others. Lay people were, almost exclusively, imparting the faith.

Rice attended a funeral at Nice’s Église Sacré Coeur in Beaulieu. It was conducted by the relais local.

“She received the coffin. There were words of welcome, the singing of hymns, a short eulogy of the deceased, readings from scripture, a brief reflection by the relais, the lighting of candles beside the coffin, a blessing of the coffin with holy water and prayers for the deceased. It lasted about half an hour. There was no Mass, as there was no priest. But there wasn’t a Communion service either,” he recalled.

By 2009, a year after Rice’s article appeared, the then Bishop of Killaloe Willie Walsh was “clustering” parishes in the western diocese in an effort to address declining priest numbers. The pattern has been replicated all over Ireland since, with Bishop of Cork and Ross, Fintan Gavin, adding a new term to that particular lexicon this week, describing such amalgamations as “families of parishes”.

In 2010, Bishop Walsh said plainly: “I do believe that our Irish Church at this time is experiencing a degree of death.” He was not alone.

Since it was founded that same year, the Association of Catholic Priests has been calling for radical change in the church to cope with the steady decline in priest numbers.

Writing in this newspaper in 2012, association co-founder Fr Brendan Hoban said: “If ever we needed to speak the truth as we see it, then surely this is the time.

“A drip of vocations, a consistent bleeding of church members, a massive credibility problem, a leadership for the most part invisible, a priesthood demoralised and Rome at the great crossroads pointing us in the direction of the 19th century.”

Looking to the future, he said: “In 20 years [2032, when we’ll be celebrating 1,600 years since St Patrick came to Ireland] the statistics clearly show we’ll have very few priests left. If no priests means no Eucharist and no Eucharist means no church, the Irish Catholic Church will have effectively disappeared.”

Ten years later it would appear that no less a person than the Catholic Primate, Archbishop Eamon Martin, is thinking along the same lines.

Speaking in Maynooth late last month, he said: “Ten years from now, in the Patrician year 2032, we will celebrate the 16th centenary of the coming of Christianity to Ireland. My prayer and hope is that during this decade we will be honest with ourselves, having the courage to ‘let go’ of those ways of being [a] church which may have served us well in the past, but which no longer respond to the urgent and primary need for new evangelisation in our country.”

By 2032, all will have changed, changed utterly where the Catholic Church in Ireland is concerned. A clerical caste will effectively have disappeared and been replaced by an active laity, mainly women, with some visiting priests to celebrate the Eucharist and administer relevant sacraments.

By then, too, it will be back to the future for the Catholic Church on this island, back to pre-Famine Ireland when priest numbers were small and a Catholic laity still practised their faith as they had before emancipation and even during the centuries of persecution prior to that.