Lay liturgy: ‘You miss Communion. You have to have a slice of bread’

Apart from that reservation, the laity who went priest-less in Limerick were enthused

About 150 lay people replaced priests on altars on Tuesday morning across the Catholic diocese of Limerick for the first time in its 900-year history.

The entirely lay-led Liturgy of the Word morning church events took place in the diocese's 60 parishes, as every serving priest in the diocese attended a clergy conference with Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy, to discuss, among other things, a more inclusive church fractured by abuse scandals.

Masses took place later, on Tuesday evening, in three parishes.

The practice of lay-led liturgy ceremonies are commonplace in other European countries, but Tuesday marked the first time it involved an entire diocese in Ireland.


Each service saw lay ministers lead congregations in 20-25 minutes of prayer and hymns. The sacrament of Communion was not permitted, as no priest was present.

The seeds of change in the church began at 10am at the 158-year-old St John’s Cathedral in Limerick city. As the church bell sounded, the 200-strong congregation stood up from their seats. But, instead of a male priest presiding from the altar, as has been the norm for more than a century and a half, three local women appeared in front of the marble and alabaster table to lead the congregation.

It was a “proud” moment for all three.

“I love every block, and brick, and blade of grass here,” said Caroline McDonagh (55), who was now helping to lead her congregation in their faith from the same altar where she was baptised.

It was an honour to be asked to do it . . . and the reaction we got from the congregation, with a round of applause at the end, I think, said it all

Along with her fellow lay leaders and Eucharistic ministers, Sharon Collopy and Trish Kennedy, she returned the applause the three women received from their fellow parishioners afterwards.

“It was an honour to be asked to do it . . . and the reaction we got from the congregation, with a round of applause at the end, I think, said it all,” said McDonagh.

They were “nervous” ahead of their task, but “pleased” their roles were “met with such approval”.

Time for female priests?

No one in the all-female trilogy would go so far as to give their blessing for female priests.

“I’d rather not get into that one at the moment, to be honest. I’m just very happy that, as a lay minister, I’m fulfilling what I need to do at the moment,” McDonagh said.

Could she see a day when lay people would fill the entire role of priests, saying Mass, serving Communion and hearing Confessions? “I don’t. But, again, you never know. The day might come, but I don’t think it will in my lifetime.”

Whatever we can do to support the priests, we are very happy to do it

For Collopy, it was “a privilege to be part of it”. She felt no pressure to perform the role of a priest but also said “it is important for us to be here to support the priests, and for me being a woman, being part of this morning’s liturgy, isn’t it wonderful I can be here within my own role – as a woman, as a layperson – who is here to support the priest and support the community?”

Ms Kennedy (52), a Eucharistic minister of 25 years, agreed. “Whatever we can do to support the priests, we are very happy to do it.”

However, Kennedy believed the congregation missed receiving the Eucharist.

“They are so used to coming to their daily Mass and having Communion every day, [so] it would have been very strange for them. But, I’m sure that, going forward, there will be a case where you could have a daily liturgy where we won’t have Communion, so unfortunately it’s something that is going to happen down the line.”

Missing Communion

The majority of the congregation, a mix of middle-aged and older people, did indeed miss holy Communion. One of the longest-serving parishioners, Mary Reale, who also performed a Gospel reading, felt the liturgy was "beautiful . . . but there's nothing on earth that would replace the holy Mass".

She described the downturn in priest numbers as a “wake-up call” for the church. We need more vocations; we’ll have to pray hard.”

Dominick Lipper (81) was in agreement: "It was lovely, but you miss the Mass, in particular going up to get holy Communion."

John Brennan (67) didn't miss the presence of a priest. "It was excellent, a change from the ordinary Mass . . . We still prayed. You miss holy Communion all right; you have to have a slice of bread."

Often the priest goes on too long too. I prefer the short sermon, about 10 minutes

Ger Cowhey, (85), favoured a “traditionalist” Mass format. “I liked that, but I’d rather have the priest. There was no men there preaching . . . What does that say?” However, he was still impressed with Tuesday’s format, and quipped: “I’ll come again. It might not be my thing, but I’ll go along with it.”

Salvador Slattery (78) was undecided on the "strange" in-service. "Yes I liked it, it was strange . . . but, I suppose it's going to be [the] thing down the line. You miss the Communion, the body and blood of Christ, and the priest. Often the priest goes on too long too. I prefer the short sermon, about 10 minutes."

A diocesan spokesperson said “there are 108 Limerick diocesan priests; 73 are in active ministry, 65 of those in parishes (eight in non-parish roles) and 35 are retired”.

Speaking on Limerick’s Live 95FM, Bishop Leahy acknowledged Catholics “will feel the pain of not having the Mass”, but he said he expected more lay-led services becoming the norm into the future.

“This is a step that we know we have to start moving into. It’s a first step and a small step; it’s not going to happen every week. It’s a first step to training for the future.”