Wednesday 17 April 2024

‘The mission is not just in Africa any more’

Talks over the consolidation of Masses in parishes across the Diocese of Kilmore are continuing, with the hope a clearer picture will emerge before the end of next month.

“There are no easy answers,” says Bishop Martin Hayes, who has set a deadline of Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter.

It had been hoped there would be a breakthrough prior to Easter.

The decision to share Masses between local communities, thus reducing the burden on priests, comes at a time the church faces growing uncertainties predicated on lower attendances and the expectation the number of priests in the Diocese will almost halve by the end of this decade.

Details of the challenges faced were included in a pastoral letter published by the Bishop Hayes, entitled ‘Making Decisions and Preparing for the Future Together’ late last year. It prompted parishes across the diocese to host meetings for parishioners to share their views and contribute possible solutions.

Discussions have also taken place with local priests, with Bishop Hayes telling the Celt the process has “taken longer than I thought”.

At present there are just 64 priests working in the diocese, with 44 in active ministry across 34 parishes, two abroad and 18 retired. Over half the priests are aged over 70 years, and a third are older than 75.

By 2030, it is projected there will only be 27 priests left ministering.

More than half a dozen of the current clergy in the diocese are from abroad, with just one seminarian, Jordan MacGabhann from Ballyconnell, awaiting ordination later this year.

“We have a situation here in Ireland, not just in Kilmore Diocese, where people adopt a sort of passive attitude to Mass. They’re spectators. Now we want to move that beyond being spectators. We want people actively involved and with an input into the liturgy each week,” says Bishop Hayes of plans to reduce the number of Masses.

It’s a “huge task” the bishop admits, but one which leans on the belief that when a larger group is involved in preparing the liturgy they begin to “feel a greater sense of participation”.

He doesn’t see the Catholic church in Ireland going the way of assemblies as in the UK or America, and says it would be “wrong” to simply relocate all Masses from rural areas into towns.

“‘Synodality’, it’s a big word, but it’s something that’s happening globally, and it’s something we’re using, the synodal methods, in our meetings in parishes last autumn. Synodality is about people having conversations about their faith, and in having conversations about their faith they’re growing in faith. For a lot of people in Ireland today, the faith they have is what they got in primary school. That faith needs now to grow up and be a faith that’s reflective of the realities of life today, and they need to begin talking about the realities of life in the context of their faith.”

He understands difficulties people have in digesting what is being put before them, and that there is a level parochialism involved in wanting things to remain as they were.

“We have to be looking to the bigger picture, to giving life to communities that people will be attracted to. Not just loyal to, but attracted to.”

The focus of the work being done in the Kilmore Diocese will be on Masses and enveloped in that is “care of priests”. Bishop Hayes and the Diocesan team are trying to achieve a sharing of the existing workload.

“A priest’s workload is not just about celebrating Mass. As we’re moving this discussion, not just within parishes, but between parishes, these are things that have to be considered,” says Bishop Hayes. “We have to now distinguish between what is the role of a layperson and what is the role of the priest. We’re growing in developing that clarity. That question has been thrown up by virtue of these discussions.”

The Diocese is currently preparing to relaunch its recruitment for a permanent diaconate through Vocations Director Fr Ultan McGoohan. There are currently two permanent deacons in the diocese - Andy Doyle from Crosserlough and Pauric Kelly in Manorhamilton- and the hope is more can be attracted to taking up the role.


With regards to the staging of Masses meanwhile, Bishop Hayes has written again to parishes recently. He rules out the possibility of hosting big screens in churches to broadcast Masses in a parish from another area.

While video was “useful” during COVID, the church is “not depending” on it going forward, with the emphasis instead on “physical presence”.

“We’re ruling [big screens] out,” states the Bishop firmly, explaining that Kilmore Diocese has been running an online course on Appreciation of the Mass - a resource that’s available to all parishes.

“What we want is a full, wholesome, lively celebration of the Mass. A good appreciation of it. Having a screen is only going back to this idea of the spectator. We want people actively involved and with an input.”


Another subject Bishop Hayes is anxious to draw a line under is the fear some people have about the closure of churches.

“We’re not going to close churches, and we do not envisage lay led liturgies on Sundays,” the Bishop tells the Celt, warning “not to jump the gun” on discussions over neighbouring parishes consolidating Masses because “those discussions are still happening”.

“There are facilitated discussions going on and that will continue. We had hoped originally to have all this sorted by Easter. That’s not going to happen, so we’re pushing that out to Pentecost which is late May.”

In the meantime, Bishop Hayes has set about visiting the four Deaneries of priests in the Diocese - Manorhamilton, Bailieborough, Ballinamore, and Cavan Town.

“I have met the priests in those areas. We have discussed where we are on different issues, and I’ve been encouraging them now to go and talk to each other about neighbouring parishes and the sharing of Masses.”


Has there been push back from priests who feel their role is being diminished, or from parishes who fear the loss of a parish identity?

“There is push back, and understandably, from people who are concerned about their identity, not just as a parish but as a church area. Within each parish you have churches. We have to respect that. But if in a particular area there are 30 people turning up at a big church, and 30 in another area, surely it makes sense that they come together every alternative weekends. There are various arrangements being looked at, whether alternative weekends, or alternate three month periods.”

Again, he stresses that churches “will not be closed”.

“We’re tackling this now and this is our one chance to plan for the future. We want to make the changes now that will stand the test of time for the next five years and beyond.”

Even still, there is an acceptance the buildings themselves will be empty for more prolonged periods.

“They’ll probably still be used for baptisms, or funerals. There are no easy answers to it. The basic criteria is having a lively, wholesome celebration wherever you’re having it.”

If anything, Mass numbers have recovered right across the Diocese post Covid, and people emerged from lockdown having reengaged in some cases with their faith. But it’s the “70%” as Bishop Hayes sees it who attend Masses only a handful to times a year that he would like to see more of.

“We need to be in a position of strong communities to reach out, because we realise these are good people too. There are great people in parishes, they’re very faithful, but the call globally from Pope Francis is that you’re not just minding your faith, you’re also called on to go out and proclaim it and mission it. That role was left to the priest before. The challenge now is for everyone to do it and to do it working together.”


He says that to appear “brave” about expressing one’s faith is to some in this day “not seen as kosher. It’s not popular. It’s not the thing to do. But people need to be courageous.

Their faith is something to be proud of. The mission is not just out in Africa any more. It’s here, and we’re all part of it.”

Every diocese across the country is embracing some sort of internal reform with one eye on achieving what it can sustain into the future.

“Some are worse off than ourselves. I draw inspiration from other dioceses. I wouldn’t say we’re leading the way. For example Killaloe in Clare, maybe 20-30 years ago they got struck by a lack of priests and they now have lay people working with priests. We’re now following through with that.

“We’re very fortunate right now we have a priest in every parish. We are drawing on the foreign priests as well.”

It has taken longer to get to this stage than Bishop Hayes initially envisioned. Regardless, he is happy with the pace of progress.

“It has taken longer than I thought. But that’s understandable because you have to keep talking with people. It’s not going to be a case when I get up one morning and make a decision. The dialogue needs to continue.”