Some churches should close over manpower gap, says ‘Irish Catholic’ editor
Michael Kelly says it’s ‘not practical’ to sustain the current church network
The Church of the Annunciation in Finglas, Co Dublin, which is being demolished to make way for a smaller church. Photograph: Alan Betson
The Catholic Church in Ireland should close churches in some parishes because it no longer has enough priests to keep them all open, the editor of the Irish Catholic newspaper has said.
Michael Kelly told Newstalk’s Pat Kenny Show on Friday there was an increasing burden of work on fewer and fewer priests with many elderly priests having to “run from pillar to post” to say Mass in difference churches.
His comments come as census data show the number of Catholics in the State has fallen since the last census in 2011, with Catholics comprising 78.3 per cent of the population in April 2016, down from 84.2 per cent in 2011.
In September just six men began training for the Catholic priesthood at St Patrick’s College Maynooth, believed to be the lowest number in training since its foundation in 1795. There are currently 41 men studying for priesthood in Maynooth.
Mr Kelly said the number of priests in Ireland had fallen by 500 in the past ten years.
He also quoted a professor of sociology in Maynooth, Liam Ryan, who had predicted some years ago that the Church would “go the way” of the gardaí and would get to the stage where “you’d have two priests in a squad car covering half the county”.
He said the Church had not responded to the falling number of priests and instead was asking increasingly elderly priests to do more and more.
“What we’re seeing is that ten years ago a priest might have been parish priest for one parish, now he’s parish priest for three parishes, saying the same number of masses while there are fewer people attending church.
“You have situation quite often of elderly priests running from pillar to post saying three to four masses on a Sunday morning in each church that is about a third full.”
Mr Kelly admitted he did not think his proposal would be popular. “Even if people agreed on the need for some churches to close, very few people would agree that it’s their church that needs to close.
‘Network of churches’
“The fact is that it’s not practical any more to have all these churches around the country. The network of churches we have was built at a time when people didn’t have cars.
“There is a church at virtually every cross roads, parishes used to have three priests, now it’s just one. It doesn’t seem impractical to ask someone to drive an extra five to 10 minutes to go to a church.
“This can also contribute to a more vibrant liturgy. It’s much better to have a packed church rather than three churches that are about a third full or half full.
“Unfortunately there’s a reality that we don’t have the numbers of priests that we had in the past. Nor the number of people attending mass as in the past.
“We just don’t have the manpower or the resources in the Catholic Church in Ireland anymore to keep all the churches open.”
Mr Kelly said there was a case for importing priests, but this was a temporary measure as they will eventually go home to their own countries where they are also needed.
“It’s only a temporary solution, nowhere near replacement levels” that are required, he said.
“Even if the seminaries started to fill up tomorrow it would be seven to eight years before they’d be available and 70 per cent of candidates who go forward to study for the priesthood don’t go on to be ordained.”
In areas where there is a shortage of priests parishes will often be grouped together and services by a pastoral team.
Any decision to close a church is one for the relevant bishop.
Earlier this year, the Dublin archdiocese gave the go-ahead for the demolition of one of the largest Catholic churches in the county to make way for a much smaller building.
The Church of the Annunciation in Finglas, north Dublin, which catered for 3,500 parishioners, is being demolished and replaced by a church accommodating 350 worshippers instead. Land freed up by the smaller church is due to be used for social housing.