The closure of Catholic churches has become increasingly common in many countries as the decline in church attendance highlights the oversupply of church infrastructure.
While few Catholic churches have so far closed in Ireland, one church has been demolished and replaced with a much smaller church. This was the parish Church of the Annunciation on the Cappagh Road in Dublin's west Finglas.
The new church has a capacity of about 10 per cent of the older church. Provision is being made for community facilities including meeting rooms, offices and a coffee dock. The parish authorities have entered into discussion with Dublin City Council about the provision of social housing on the site.
These are the sort of discussions – between parish and council – which should bring benefit to the community.
In the whole of Ireland in 2017, there were 26 dioceses, covering 1,365 parishes with 2,646 churches, that is, almost twice the number of churches as parishes. Many of the parishes with two, or even three, churches are rural parishes where a church was built at each end of the parish before the arrival of the motor car.
While the number of parishes has remained fairly stable over the past 40 years, the number of active diocesan priests plummeted from 3,801 to 1,728, a decline of more than 50 per cent.
Views are mixed on the closure and clustering of parishes and parish churches. Some regard closures as inevitable on economic grounds.
Bishop Cullinan of Waterford and Lismore believes too many resources were deployed in the past on the maintenance of church buildings and insufficient resources on evangelisation.
Others stress the importance of local churches, and see the local church as having a role extending beyond the sacramental and important for community life.
Jesuit sociologist Micheál Mac Gréil has described the parish as “the only community structure which covers the whole of Ireland”.
A debate is taking place in the Church of England regarding closures. Charles Moore, convert to Catholicism and former editor of The Spectator, has spoken of the "widespread sadness about parish decline" in the Church of England which has galvanised those who value parish life to set up a campaigning group, Save the Parish.
The campaign has been joined by Monty Python actor Michael Palin, who says that "churches remain a vital and much-loved part of the UK's history and heritage". The Archbishop of York meanwhile has described the parish as "the beating heart of community life in England". Yet, according to The Spectator, he and the Archbishop of Canterbury both support a change in church law to make it easier to close parish churches.
One firm advocate of closures is the Dutch Catholic cardinal and Archbishop of Utrecht Willem Eijk. About 150 of the 400 churches in Utrecht have been closed, with more due to close in the coming years.
Eijk believes spending money on maintaining near-empty churches is unjustified and may limit the missionary outreach of the church.
The Congregation for Bishops in Rome believes dioceses with fewer than 100,000 persons are not sustainable
Another archdiocese where closures are happening on a large scale is the Archdiocese of New York. Seven years ago in late 2014 the archdiocese announced it would merge 112 parishes, or about one-third of the total, into 55 parishes.
A striking example of closure and consolidation is found in the town of Widnes in the Archdiocese of Liverpool. In 1951 there were five parishes in Widnes; by 1990 the number had increased to 10. In 2015 there were eight parishes with eight churches and just five priests.
The decline in church attendance, combined with an average age of priests of 72 in the Liverpool archdiocese, indicated the need for action.
On the first Sunday of Lent in 2015, the existing eight parishes in Widnes, together with four churches, closed. One new parish was established with the five priests and the four remaining churches. The priests move around the four churches to say Mass.
Related to the future of parishes is the future of dioceses. The Congregation for Bishops in Rome believes dioceses with fewer than 100,000 persons are not sustainable.
Eleven dioceses in Ireland have stated Catholic populations of below 100,000 while three dioceses – Achonry, Clonfert and Killala – have Catholic populations of fewer than 40,000.
In November 2021 it was decided by the Vatican that Galway and Clonfert would in future share one bishop.
Meanwhile, the large size of Dublin, where 1.2 million identify as Catholic, raises questions. Is it too big for one man?
Former archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin drew a comparison between the Archdiocese of Dublin and the Dublin local authorities. From the point of view of the civil authorities, Dublin has been divided into four: Dublin city, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, Fingal and South County, but the archdiocese remains intact.
Finola Kennedy is an economist and author of the 2011 biography Frank Duff: A Life Story