Brendan Hoban:  exciting new chapter for Killala diocese      

Western People 31.1.2023

Sometimes, a picture or even an image, can paint a thousand words. You can fill a room with talk or list all the significant data by quoting reams of statistics and, at the end of it all, people will look blankly into space wondering to themselves what it all means. Or why you’re so worked up about it.  

Alternatively, someone can present an image that represents what all the words or statistics actually mean in practice and the message, glistening on a screen, suddenly has a spotlight placed on it and everything becomes obvious.

For years, here and elsewhere, I’ve pointed to the growing mathematical certainty that Catholic priests in Ireland are disappearing and that the most we can hope for in the future is a small cadre of padres struggling, for example, to spread themselves over multiple parishes in an effort to bury the dead.

Then, just before Christmas, in the Great National Hotel in Ballina, at a meeting of all the Parish Councils of the 22 parishes of Killala diocese – as part of our synodal pathway project – a speaker introducing the importance of lay Catholics’ involvement in the future of parishes showed two images or rather two versions of the one image.

The first image, the speaker explained, represented in miniature profile the present 23 priests working in Killala diocese. There was a slight pause before the speaker continued that, within five years, the possibility was that there would be just 8 working priests left in the diocese. With this some of the priest figures fell away one by one until just 8 were left on the screen.

The intake of breath that followed the logic of the decline in priest numbers indicated that the graphic, with its highly effective presentation of the reality now on our doorstep, had struck oil!

The clear, incontrovertible truth was that the ever-declining number of priests would not be able to provide more than minimal service to the people of the diocese and if the Catholic Church was to survive in any effective form, lay Catholics would have to step up to the mark. Specifically, the lay Catholics in the room, who were (at this point) elected and trained members of the 22 Parish Councils in the diocese.

Since 2017, a Killala diocesan project, Placing Hope in Faith (PHIF) – based on Pope Francis’ conviction that synodality was the way forward for the Church – had worked its way through a series of parish and deanery meetings, consultations, reflections, analyses of priest numbers and Mass attendance figures leading to a diocesan survey that sought to find out what the people wanted to happen.

The results of the comprehensive, confidential survey (2018) were independently analysed, 129 proposals were sifted from it and, in the first ever Killala diocesan assembly, 300 delegates from the 22 parishes gathered in the Twin Trees Hotel in Ballina, on July 1, 2018 to decide what needed to happen through a system of confidential electronic voting – and what needed to be prioritised.

Fourteen areas of interest – youth, women’s role in the Church, management of parishes, etc – were isolated and focus groups formed which reported back with recommendations for action. An Action/Implementation Group was formed to focus attention on getting things done, the first of which was the election and training of new Parish Councils.

So we found ourselves, on a November evening in 2022 in the Great National Hotel in Ballina, looking at a screen depicting 8 miniature models of priests. By ‘we’ I mean Bishop John Fleming, the priests of the diocese and most of the members of the 22 Parish Councils.

On that evening PHIF presented four new lay ‘ministries’ – bringing Communion to the housebound, visitation of those in need or at risk, leaders of lay liturgies and what we call ‘Accompaniment’. These are specific roles for lay people to support priests by lay people doing what lay people can do.

Let me give one example of the ‘Accompaniment’ process leading to priest and people working together at the time of a funeral.

A parish ‘Funeral Team’ of a priest and a few lay Catholics is set up to organise and deliver the appropriate funeral rituals. Initially it will include a priest accompanied by a lay funeral minister together leading the prayers in the home or funeral home, in receiving the remains in the church, in participation in the Funeral Mass and in the prayers in the cemetery.

As gradually people get used to the priest and funeral minister working together, the community will get used to and recognise how worship at its best is a combined priest and people experience.

Gradually too, in circumstances where a priest is unavailable, the funeral minister will lead the prayers in the home or funeral home or at the reception of the remains or at the grave.

Through the development since 2017 of the Killala synodal pathway project, people constantly asked for training and support in responding to the challenges that the future would bring. In response, a two-year part-time certificate course has now been designed around the needs of responding to the synodal pathway, and marks a new and exciting stage of the synodal pathway, beginning in the Newman Institute, Ballina on February 21. It will give participants an opportunity to learn more about their faith and crucially it will provide practical training in the area of liturgy and pastoral ministry, with a view to enabling people to become effective lay ministers  in their parishes.

The aim of the programme is to empower people to become actively involved in lay leadership working with their priests and bishop to provide pastoral care in our parishes into the future. It is expected that each parish will encourage parishioners to enlist in the programme. (Enrolment is now open and will be until February 17.  All enquiries to 096-72066 or email

This marks a new and exciting stage in the progress of the synodal pathway in Killala diocese.

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  1. Lee Cahill SMA says:

    Blessed are you, people of God of Killala diocese!!! You inspire us to (at last????) accept i. present reality (“diminishing” leadership in Church); ii a mode of synodality to respond to it; iii responsibility for taking on partnership with Christ in ‘making all things new’.

  2. Brian Eyre, married catholic priest says:

    It was very encouraging to read about the Killala diocese and how it is planning for the future and that lay people will take up more and more pastoral activities.
    However I was surprised that the article said nothing about the future of the celebration of the Eucharist in light of the fact, as the article speaks about “the mathematical certainty that Catholic priests in Ireland are disappearing” and “if the celibate priests are to become in the future a small cadre of priests struggling to spread themselves over multiple parishes”, then what will become of the celebration of the Eucharist?
    There are good lay people who are involved in our parishes, could these not be called to the priesthood? Yes, women and men could be ordained priests so that the regular celebration of Mass will continue.

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