Ban on Sunday Funerals in Kerry – symptom of much larger problem

The latest news from the Diocese of Kerry is just another indication that the crisis concerning the shortage of priests to serve the pastoral and sacramental needs of parishioners is not being tackled.

With less that forty students for the priesthood in the national seminary at Maynooth, and suggestions that this year’s intake may be historically low, it is evident that a completely new way of thinking of priesthood is being asked of us, rather than a futile attempt to maintain the present status quo or a longing for an impossible return to the past.

Statement issued last May by Bishop Ray Browne

“From the 1st September 2017 no funerals (Mass, Liturgy or burial) will take place on a Sunday in the parishes of the diocese ”.    

  • This applies from Saturday mid-afternoon;
  • Removals to the church can take place on either Saturday or Sunday evening;
  • This change is necessary for many reasons: related to good Liturgy; related to factors in individual parishes; and related to the availability of priests;
  • Parishes are reminded that there be no exceptions to this diocesan regulation;
  • As regards Holy Days of Obligation the rule will apply to Christmas Day and St Patrick’s Day. On the other Holy Days of Obligation for flexibility reasons the decision is left to the local parish (while discouraging such funerals for liturgical reasons);
  • I realise many will have reservations about this decision. It has been taken after extensive consultation with laity and clergy throughout the diocese.


Due to the fact that this policy is now taking effect it is receiving some coverage in the national media.

Writing in the Irish Times Ann Lucey reports

“A spokeswoman for the diocese this weekend said the policy is now in effect.

The 53-parish diocese is undergoing major changes with a decline in the number of priests. Now just one priest under the age of 40 is serving in the diocese and six parishes in the diocese which takes in part of west and north Cork and stretches across three peninsulas to the Limerick border now have no resident priest.”

The real issue is not of course the fact that such a blanket ban is being imposed in Kerry diocese but the fact that no real alternatives are being offered to provide the requisite number of priests in Kerry or elsewhere. Pope Francis has asked bishops to bring him creative solutions. The attempt by Bishop Leo O’Reilly to at least discuss the issue of married priests hit a stonewall with the Irish bishops conference.

One can only sympathise with the priests and people of Kerry diocese. There can be no winners in such a circumstance; priests will feel even further pressure on them when they are faced with bereaved and grieving parishioners and have to attempt to explain this policy to them; bereaved relatives will be disappointed, possibly angry, and feel let down by a church that their deceased loved one was probably loyal to over many years.

The fact that the policy firmly excludes “Mass, Liturgy or burial” seems to be deliberately pointed at excluding services led by ministers other than priests. Is this wise? I wonder will some people decide to take matters into their own hands and hold their own funeral services? Could policies like this actually drive longstanding and loyal parishioners into the realms of alternative religious and secular services?

But there needs to be absolute clarity, this policy is a symptom not the disease.

Unless we as a church can provide ministers to care for the pastoral and sacramental needs of people they will seek alternatives that will be of service to them where and when they need.

Clustering of parishes and introducing rota systems to spread fewer and older priests over ever expanding  areas is an attempt to manage a crisis and a decline, it is not a solution and provides no long-term remedies. In fact it is guaranteed to end in failure.

Pope Francis has asked for solutions. If our bishops are unable or unwilling to look at options perhaps is it past time other groups of interested church members attempted to make contact with him. The Association of Catholic Priests has already floated the idea of requesting a meeting with Pope Francis if he visits Ireland next year. Can we encourage other church groups to request formal meetings as well so that Francis will leave Ireland knowing that there are many varied opinions and options about the type of priesthood that is required to meet the pastoral and sacramental needs of people and ensure the future existence of our church here in Ireland.

I would suggest that to begin such a debate the current model of a full time, professional, celibate and male priesthood needs at least to be closely examined.

  • we could at least discuss if priesthood needs to be a ‘full time’ occupation for all priests. Other churches have models of part time ministry, as we do ourselves with the permanent diaconate.
  • we could at least discuss if priesthood needs to be  ‘professional’, in the sense that all priests have to be paid. Again there are models of non-stipendiary priests in other Christian Churches.
  • we could at least discuss the mandatory requirement of celibacy. We know from history that celibacy is not an essential requirement of priesthood; we know this too from the presence of many married priests in the Eastern Rite Churches that are in full communion with Rome and there are some married priests (former Anglican priests) in our Latin Rite church.
  • we could at least discuss the exclusion of women from the ordained priesthood. We know that in April 1976 the Pontifical Biblical Commission, having studied the exclusion of women from the ministerial priesthood, stated that “It does not seem that the New Testament by itself alone will permit us to settle in a clear way and once and for all the problem of the possible accession of women to the presbyterate.”
    If scripture is not definitive then there is a crying need for such exclusion to be explained very clearly, and in a way that is reasoned, understandable, and accounts for cultural, societal, and historical influences.
    Is it possible to offer a reasoned explanation in this current age for such exclusion, or will a majority see it as a legacy of a time when attitudes towards women were formed by a patriarchal and possibly misogynist outlook and see it as definitive proof that we have nothing to offer to modern society where equality is now a cherished value?

The recently implemented Kerry policy highlights again the urgency to enter such considerations and discussion.

The reality needs to be faced; we have run out of road to kick the can along.

Mattie Long




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  1. Pascal O'Dea says:

    well written piece, the idea of a lay representative group or groups having access to Pope Francis if he attends the forthcoming congress on the family is a positive suggestion.Intercession by prayer might be the only route to achieve this as recent approaches to members of the hierarchy on the issues of reform in the church have not delivered any tangible change so far .Your unintended consequences scenarios of families seeking alternative arrangements for funeral arrangements is not fanciful and is actively in operation as we speak.

  2. The answer is rather obvious; enlarge the pool of lay ministeries within the dioceses and every parish and lift the burden on priests. One does not have to be ordained to conduct a funeral service; does not even have to be a permanent deacon! A recent edition of The Tablet reported that Liverpool Archdiocese has 152 trained Lay Funeral Ministers who work as part of parish bereavement teams. Other English dioceses are planning to follow suit later this year.
    There is not one Lay Funeral Minister within the whole of Ireland and not one in training. Does that not say a lot!

  3. Martin Murray says:

    Pascal O’Dea @1 says “Intercession by prayer might be the only route to achieve this as recent approaches to members of the hierarchy on the issues of reform in the church have not delivered any tangible change so far”.

    You might have something there Pascal. Silent intercessory prayer vigils TIGHTLY FOCUSED the on radical reforms as bullet pointed above might attract more support than overt protests as they are more culturally in tune with how Irish Catholics express themselves. Should be easy to organise as well, as a simple prayer card would suffice. Could be replicated across the country. And could be seen also as a form of silent protest. “For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20)

  4. Mary Vallely says:

    Martin Murray @3 suggests that
    “Silent intercessory prayer vigils TIGHTLY FOCUSED on radical reforms as bullet pointed above might attract more support than overt protests as they are more culturally in tune with how Irish Catholics express themselves.”
    I agree that people are more comfortable with this form of action although I don’t know any group which would be praying for reform. There are wonderful prayer groups ( mostly women) who pray continually for peace and I am aware of one small local team who stood outside Stormont recently to pray for a return to harmony there.
    I think this is ongoing, and it is admirable and necessary but it isn’t enough. The hierarchy need to see movement from the masses ( pun intended) that we will no longer accept unquestioningly unjust rules but will speak out against them.
    Back to the topic of the ban on Sunday funerals in Kerry due to the shortage of priests: the problem of a shortage of vocations to the priesthood is part of a systemic failure in the Church to treat all its members equally and the failure to emphasise the need for all of us to work together to make ” Thy kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven” achievable.
    There is an unfair burden on our priests and often a too high expectation of perfection. We all need to share this burden. Prayer vigils, private or public, letters of pleading, of protest, standing outside churches with placards ( most of us are uncomfortable with this form of vigil) are all necessary tools in the long campaign to have our voices heard and listened to. Limerick had a successful Synod which came across as a partnership of ordained and non- ordained working together. Why not other dioceses? The bishops expressed astonishment that Pope Francis actually wanted to listen to them on their most recent Ad Limina visit and yet they have not seen the irony in the fact that they do not listen to their priests and people!!
    Thank you, Martin, for bringing this poor specimen of a Catholic to the awareness of the value of prayer and the need to pray more often. Also to mjt in another thread for reminding me too of the necessity of beautiful fitting liturgy which is food for the soul.

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