No Mass to take place in Limerick diocese next Tuesday

Fall-off in Catholic priesthood vocations leads to unprecedented situation

Masses will not be said at any church in the Diocese of Limerick next Tuesday, April 25th – the first time since Catholic Emancipation in 1829 that this has happened in any Irish diocese.

Instead, there will be only lay-led liturgies of the Word (readings) and public prayers in churches, with no Mass and no Communion on that day. The lack of services in the Limerick diocese is directly related to the fall-off in priestly vocations, despite major efforts by the diocese to best use existing priests.

Communion will not be distributed on Tuesday, but this is not to suggest it might never be so distributed at future lay-led liturgies, especially, for instance, on Sundays in nursing homes, said a diocesan spokesman.

Last November, Bishop Brendan Leahy warned that a chronic shortage of priests, coupled with falling Mass attendances, could lead to "some churches" having Mass "every second Sunday or one Sunday a month".


Limerick diocese has a Catholic population of 184,340 in 60 parishes, with 94 churches. It has 83 active priests, made up of 45 parish priests and 38 curates, with just 10 of them under the age of 50.

“All over the world, when priests are not available, the liturgy of the Word is celebrated in parishes without the distribution of Communion. We are, in many respects, going back to the future as not that long ago people would attend weekly Mass without receiving Communion, which was largely a sacrament received only occasionally,” Bishop Leahy said.

Chronic shortage

The chronic shortage of priests next Tuesday is because priests across the diocese will attend a one-day training course, The Irish Times understands.

Last year, a 400-strong diocesan synod, 300 of them lay, acknowledged the need for greater involvement by the laity, including situations where lay people would lead prayers in church.

Noting that the synod had strongly supported this, Bishop Leahy said: “We need to prepare for a time when, even though priests are not available, each local community will be prepared to arrange for moments of public prayer.

“No parish should find itself in a position where it is not prepared for such a possibility, so it makes sense for us to begin right now,” he said.

There are currently 67 men studying for the priesthood – 55 at St Patrick's College Maynooth and 12 at the Irish College in Rome. Maynooth was designed to cater for 500 seminarians. It has just over a tenth of that number now. Meanwhile, the average age of the Irish Catholic diocesan priest hovers at around 67. They retire at 75.

A 2013 study found that three-quarters of Ireland’s priests were then aged between 45 and 74, with the largest proportion (27.1 per cent) in the 65-74 age group. Altogether in 2013, 64.9 per cent of Irish priests were over 55, while, as the study put it, “the proportions of priests in the sub-44 age groups are decreasing”. In 2013 that latter figure was 11.9 per cent.

No resident priest

Last month, the Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnois Francis Duffy said three parishes in his diocese no longer have a resident priest: "This trend of a declining number of clergy is set to continue."

He said that “by 2030, over the next 13 years, 28 of our 53 diocesan priests will reach the retirement age of 75 years”. There would then be 25 priest to serve 41 parishes.

The Dublin archdiocese does not have a priest under the age of 40. In 2014 there were a total of 419 priests serving its 1,159,000 Catholics in 199 parishes with a total 238 churches. In 13 years’ time, by 2030, there are expected to be 192 priests under 75 (retirement age) in the archdiocese.

The number of diocesan priests in the decade 2002 to 2012, went from 3,203 in 2002 to 2,800 in 2012, a fall of 403, while the number of religious priests – members of congregations and orders – dropped from 2,159, to 1,888 in 2012. For the female congregations, the drop in numbers was bigger, down from 8,953 in 2002 to 6,912 in 2012 – a fall of 2,041.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times