SEISMIC changes are to take place across the Diocese of Clogher in the coming weeks that will see Mass numbers slashed, as the Church struggles to cope with a catastrophic shortage of priests.
When Pope Francis arrives in Ireland later this month he will find an Irish Catholic Church in dramatic decline. The effects of that decline are now hitting home locally, with many priests reaching retirement, including three at large parishes in Fermanagh, and those remaining being redeployed to cover larger swathes of the diocese.
In a letter delivered to parishes across Fermanagh at the weekend, diocesan administrator Mgr Joseph McGuinness outlined the worrying shortage of priests in the diocese, and announced a series of changes to cope with this shortage.
Just 58 priests now serve the 37 parishes and 85 churches in the diocese, a reduction of around one-third in the past 20 years. Only seven are under the age of 50, 28 are over the age of 65. Fourteen have retired from administration as parish priests, and more are due to retire. Seven priests have also been lost to service in the last year alone, to death, illness and other reasons.
One new priest had been ordained in the diocese, Fr Sean Mulligan, who will serve in Carrickmacross but held his first Mass in Enniskillen last week. However Mgr McGuinness said the decline in numbers would continue.
“There are obvious implications in this for our ability to sustain the levels of pastoral and sacramental provision which have existed until now, as well as the administrative structures within our Diocese,” he said.
“The changes which I am making are the beginning of a process to deal with the reality of the present and the challenge of the future.”
In the immediate future, four parish priests are to retire in the coming weeks. As a result, existing or newly appointed parish priests will take charge of more than one parish.
A spokesman for the diocese said: “The changes herald a new departure in how pastoral ministry will be carried out in the diocese. From now on, the availability of priests and the consequent provision of Masses will not simply be on an individual parish basis but will depend upon neighbouring parishes working together in the seven pastoral areas of the diocese.”
In the coming weeks the remaining priests will meet with Mgr McGuinness to arrange both weekday and weekend Mass times across neighbouring parishes. This meeting will also be to reduce the workload of the priests and to make holiday and illness cover provision.
In addition, the administration of parishes will be increasingly delivered from offices at key locations around the diocese, so parishes can share the burden.
For more on this story see this week’s Fermanagh Herald.