Monday 29 January 2024

Cork and Kerry churches to be left without Masses amid fresh wave of priests retiring

A wave of retirements in the coming years will exacerbate a crisis in Kerry that has already left 15 parishes without priests.

With many priests set to reach retirement age in Kerry, more churches will be without weekend Masses, Bishop of Kerry Ray Browne has warned.

Dr Browne wrote at the weekend of the impending exodus of priest to Mass-goers across Kerry and parts of North and West Cork, which forms the Diocese of Kerry.

"With many priests set to reach retirement age 75 in the next three years, the challenge is imminent," the bishop wrote in a pastoral letter read out at Masses.

More parishes are set to lose priests, while parish and pastoral area structures themselves would have to be reviewed "so they can serve us more effectively", the bishop said.

"A church can still be the centre point for community life, even if there is no weekend Mass," he said.

"Think of your local church community in four ways: a social/friendship community; a caring compassionate community; a praying, worshiping and sacramental community; and a community whose mission is to nourish and develop its faith, and hand it on to the next generation," the letter read.

A "key element" will be to add to the existing 26 pastoral leaders. A planning group has been established to pave the way for the new lay-centred focus.

A group representing laity, religious and clergy of all ages will oversee the planning process and will conclude by May 2024, according to Dr Browne.

The work will be "in a synodal manner" to draw in as many voices as possible and to make decisions by consensus guided by the Holy Spirit, he said.

Gatherings in each parish will begin in February.

The Diocese of Kerry includes more than 50 parishes from West Kerry to parts of North and West Cork.

Bishop of Kerry Ray Browne: 'A church can still be the centre point for community life, even if there is no weekend Mass.' Picture: Valerie O'Sullivan

A survey by the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) in late 2023 found 2,116 priests serve in Ireland’s 26 dioceses, with nearly 15% of priests over 75 and still working. 

More than 25% are between 60 and 75, but just 2.5% are under 40.

The Irish Catholic Directory for 2022 recorded 520 priests dying in the three years up to 2021.

Fr Roy Donovan of the ACP said Dr Browne's pastoral letter called for "a radically different way of going about everything".

This reflected the findings of two-year research commissioned by the national steering committee of the Irish Synodal Pathway presented to bishops last year.

The findings recommended radical changes and highlighted the need for training.

Priests would have to let go of power and the laity would have to take up the call to become more active.

The Diocese of Kerry had been very advanced in its preparations for the changes in recent years, Fr Donovan said.

"This calls for a radical and different circular type of church," Fr Donovan said of both the pastoral letter and the findings of the synodal pathway research.

The challenges for the church at the moment was it was still having to maintain the old system while trying to build the new, Fr Donovan said.