This week’s announcement by Cardinal Sean Brady of a ‘Strengthening of the Parishes’ in the Archdiocese of Armagh is a stark reflection on the acute shortage of priests in the Catholic Church.
The Cardinal admitted this, in his statement on Monday, and acknowledged the decline in the number of priests nationally and locally.
He said: “That number will continue to drop in the next 10 years. If we are to ensure the health of our priests and ensure the vibrancy of our parishes, changes are inevitable.”
He outlined a comprehensive plan for this which anticipated a renewing and strengthening of the Church, but how will this work out in practice?
The central idea is to have a ‘cluster’ of parishes to help share the scarce clerical resources, in an Archdiocese where there are some 213,600 Catholics and only 138 diocesan priests — and 12 of these in the active ministry are over 75.
To determine the number of groups to be formed, there will be a meeting of each parish before Christmas and also during Lent to work out which parishes will cluster and how many parishes will be in each group.
The Cardinal has given assurances that “this does not mean the amalgamating of parishes, and that each parish will maintain its unique identity”.
The simple fact|is that we live in rapidly changing times, and the Church has to adapt and change
This will obviously need to be worked out in detail with the clergy and laity to avoid what could appear, at this stage, to be a contradiction in terms.
The second stage, which will be addressed between September 2009 and June 2010, will be to determine how many priests are to serve each parish in the cluster and what resources are to be allocated to the employment of lay leaders.
Another crucial factor will be to work out the number of Masses that can be celebrated in each cluster, and how this can be done.
The third stage, beginning in September 2010, will be to develop and create new parish structures which will enable them ‘to continue to function and develop as vibrant Christian communities’.
According to the Cardinal this may involve the laity in administrative or pastoral roles within a cluster, as well as the establishment of a “pastoral co-ordination council”, whatever that will mean in practice.
In short, it seems that in an era of declining Sunday Mass attendance and the serious shortage of priests, the Catholic Church is going to have to make the best use of the clerical resources it has, and to encourage more lay Catholics to play a more active role in the life of the Church.
At the moment, it is by no means clear to the outside observer how this will actually work in practice, but the plan as outlined by Cardinal Brady has some positive aspects.
First, it shows that the Armagh Archdiocese is aware of the problem and is actually doing something about it.
Second, it illustrates that this Archdiocese is taking its time to plan carefully and to try to get the structures right.
Third, it underlines that the Catholic Church is now prepared and willing to discuss momentous changes with people in the parishes, unlike the bad old days when too many structures were imposed from above.
The Armagh Archdiocese is not alone in facing a challenging future, and virtually every Catholic Diocese in Ireland is tackling the same problem.
Cardinal Brady neatly summed up the problem facing the entire Church when he said: “The simple fact is that we live in rapidly changing times, and the Church has to adapt and change so that it can more effectively carry on the mission of Christ.”
The success, or otherwise of the Armagh plan will be watched closely not only on this island but much further afield.