Brendan Hoban: Facing up to the reality of a changed Church

Western People 07.03.23

‘Denialism’ is a theory Sigmund Freud developed which describes a common enough experience. It’s when something is too difficult to cope with and the mind denies it’s happening by inventing a way of rejecting it. 

Here’s an example. At present the number of Catholic priests in Ireland is in free-fall and parishes are struggling to sustain a timetable of church services which we had come to take for granted. 

Up to recently, for example, Dublin, with 197 parishes was being served by 350 active priests with an average age of 70. In Tuam, there are 56 parishes with just 41 priests under the retirement age of 75. In Achonry at best, there will be 12 priests serving in 23 parishes of our diocese in 10 years’ time ­and there’s no student studying for the priesthood.

At present Killala diocese (with possibly just 8 priests serving in 4 years’ time) is attempting to prepare for a future that will involve some parishes (and church areas within parishes) losing a weekend Mass.

For example, for parishes without weekend Masses, substituting a prayer service led by lay Catholics, women and men, that would include scripture readings, and the reception of Communion – in effect, everything that Mass is now but without the consecration. 

For example, with parishes without adequate priest numbers to cover funerals lay Catholics, women and men, will substitute for the priest at the funeral home, receiving the remains at the church and saying the prayers in the cemetery – in effect, the funeral rituals except Mass. 

Understandably, this is causing some concern. Though the decline in priest numbers reaching crisis proportions was widely flagged for years, denialism is rife as we struggle to get our heads around the approaching and inevitable prospect that for many of our parishes and church areas there will no weekend Mass into the future?

If something was constant for centuries it’s very hard to believe that suddenly the future is going to be different. The temptation that denialism represents in refusing to accept the reality of change is to imagine that there is some way of avoiding what is a mathematical certainty.

So a series of alternatives are proposed: importing sufficient foreign priests from overseas is presented as a permanent solution rather than a temporary strategy which has significant and obvious limitations; pressure can be brought to bear on priests to work until they drop dead as if the benefits of a deserved retirement don’t apply to them; indulging the notion that lay Catholics, especially women, are regarded as not ‘good enough’ to lead worship, even if that demeaning and disrespectful attitude continues patterns of misogyny and patriarchy that have brought such grief to our Church in the past; praying for vocations as if prayer is telling God what to do, when it’s obvious that God is pointing us in a direction some of us don’t want to take; and there are a series of other suggestions, the most bizarre of which is to reintroduce the Latin Mass. 

All or any of the above don’t provide a workable solution and are deflecting our responsibility to deal creatively and responsibly with the problem. The most obvious way is to train ‘lay’ women and men to (among other things) lead weekend liturgies and to help provide, for example, the range of funeral services necessary for the respectful burial of the dead.

This is already in train. In April 2021, in Dublin diocese a taskforce was set up to assess the needs of the diocese. A consultation was followed by an appeal for ‘women and men who feel called to ministry to come forward for training’ and the expectation is that lay people will be more centrally involved in conducting baptisms and marriages and as funeral ministers.

Of course, all of that is in line with church (or canon) law and all of it is already happening around the world. The challenge Dublin and Ireland now face is to do what the Second Vatican Council decided should be done 60 years ago and release the gifts of lay people.

An article in The Irish Times by Áine Ryan a week or so ago explained that this was already happening on Clare Island off the Mayo coast.

Over twenty years ago, Clare Island lost its last resident priest, Fr Ned Crosby, and while a schedule of neighbouring priests serves the community three weekends out of four, bad weather, especially during the winter months, means that scheduled services are cancelled with trained members of the community stepping in at the eleventh hour.

Mary McCabe, a retired teacher, told The Irish Times, ‘Our Sunday Services now have complete lay involvement and now, after two decades, this was the norm for us. Summer visitors to the island who attend are always pleasantly surprised at how much they enjoy them’. The Clare island community, she says, is now responsible for ‘ensuring that the faith of our ancestors is passed on to the next generation’.

At first there was some resistance to the change with a minority reluctant to accept or attend the services but that has now moderated and people comment on how much they enjoy the simplicity and devoutness of the liturgy.

Closer to home, here in Killala diocese, a specially devised training course for lay leaders – and taking place in the Newman Institute in Ballina over the next two years – has attracted 70-plus people from the parishes of the diocese. We’re beginning to see what the future looks like and how it can work.

A first step is to move beyond denial. 

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One Comment

  1. John D. Kirwin says:

    Some might be interested in Thomas O’Loughlin’s latest piece, “In Christ there is no East or West,” (Liturgical Press).

    We’re in need of some re-thinking as to what the Eucharist is all about, eating and drinking together, and then going out and serving those in need. Elders (presbyters) led in the beginning, ordination was a later day invention. It seems that it’s about leadership and the Church and the world has a plethora of women with those abilities.

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