Editor's Viewpoint: Shortage of priests poses new challenge
The shortage of Catholic priests is nothing new, but it is disturbing to note that the Diocese of Derry is so short of priests that they may be forced to cover more than one parish each.
A decrease in ordinations, combined with the increasing number of priests reaching retiring age, means that parishes which at one time had perhaps three priests will have a radical shake-up of the way in which the Church tries to meet the needs of the faithful.
The declining number of priests in Ireland north and south has led the Church to take special measures, and for many years a number of former missionaries in foreign parts have been recalled to help out in Irish parishes as the number of new ordinations in many dioceses has slipped to the low single figures.
Having been a net exporter of priests for many years, the Catholic Church has found itself in the invidious position of having to be a net importer.
The Derry diocese has special problems, and not the least of these is having to straddle three counties, including the border.
The staffing solution to this challenge was first mooted in the diocesan document titled God is Love, which suggested ways in which the laity could be more active in their own parishes, and carry out duties which have been done traditionally by clergy. Bishop Donal McKeown has rightly initiated the discussions around his pastoral vision and how to accommodate this, while taking account of the reality of a smaller number of priests.
As with clergy of all denominations, the Catholic priests carry out a vast degree of pastoral work, which does not always receive the recognition it deserves. Older parishioners and those in poor health come to rely greatly upon this pastoral care, given the reduction in the provision of care provided by statutory and other bodies.
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
In such circumstances, Bishop McKeown is correct in identifying the greater role which the laity can play in taking over some of the role played by the priesthood.
Already, many parishioners in Catholic churches play a greater role in administering the Sacraments than at any stage in the Church's history.
The challenge that faces not just the Catholic Church but all mainstream churches is one of rebirth in an age of increasing secularism and hostility to organised religion in all its forms.
If Bishop McKeown is successful in his mission he will have accomplished something akin to the challenges faced by the early Church founders.
Many people in Northern Ireland, of all creeds and backgrounds, will wish Bishop McKeown Godspeed in his venture.