Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Grouped and postponed funerals to become more common due to growing shortage of priests

Association of Catholic Priests Ireland

Grouped funerals and funeral postponements are set to become commonplace in Ireland, owing to the shortage of priests being endured by the Catholic Church, the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) has said.

The topic rose to prominence this week after the Bishop of Galway and Clonfert, Michael Duignan, stated that his diocese of over 40 parishes would only have 20 priests within the next decade.

A 2022 survey conducted by the ACP found that more than a third of Irish Catholic priests were aged over 60, with just 2,100 priests working across 2,500 parishes. 

The ACP also told The Irish Times that there is just one priesthood student at present studying within the entire Archdiocese of Dublin. 

“We have been saying as an Association for some time that this shortage has been coming,” said Fr Roy Donovan, the parish priest for Caherconlish-Caherline, in Co Limerick. 

Speaking specifically to the impact this shortage of priests would have upon funerals, Fr. Donovan said.

“We’re extremely concerned that this is putting enormous pressure on our remaining priests. Priests are getting older, and retired priests are even being called back to do funerals. This is placing too big an onus on them.” 

“Funeral postponements are going to happen more and more. Weekend mass is already being said in many parishes on Thursdays or Fridays, so the problem is already here,” he added.

Highlighting the importance of funerals, Fr Donovan said: “One of the best things about the Catholic Church in Ireland is funerals. I know it sounds morbid, but it is one of the things we do really well. If you think of all the tragedies in recent times, priests have excelled, so there is an enormous need for priests to perform funerals and the other rituals around death, and how priests manage that is hugely important.”

Pinpointing the cause of this shortage, Fr Donovan directed the blame towards the Catholic Church itself, saying, “the Church has only got itself to blame. It’s very unfortunate that for something that is so important, they haven’t prepared for this. It’s absolutely a short-sightedness on their behalf.”

“What they have done is make celibacy more important than the mass. You have to be a male, you have to be unmarried, and you have to be celibate and that excludes almost everyone. I know plenty of women and married men who would love to be able to perform funeral mass, but because we have followed such narrow beliefs we have brought this shortage on ourselves,” he added.

In an attempt to mitigate against these shortages and prevent a transition to a UK-like system in which funerals take place weeks, rather than days, after death, Fr Donovan called on the Catholic Church to embrace the use of lay people in performing funerals.

“Lay people can do everything a priest can really, the only difference would be that they can’t perform a mass. They could do a whole funeral service, including the liturgy of the word and those things ... and it’s needed,” he said.

“These kinds of people need to be given the authority to do this so that we can have things like funeral services in areas where the shortage of priests is particularly acute. Bishops up and down the country are already joining parishes together so that priests can try to manage the dire situation which has presented itself,” Fr Donovan added.

Despite this call to action though, the Limerick priest remained pessimistic about the possibility of any impending changes being made by the Church which could help alleviate the shortage of priests. 

“There is a massive gap in thought and opinion between lay people and clergy members like bishops and cardinals. This gap is so enormous and seems to just keep on growing,” he said.

“We expect just because our Church is short in numbers that it will rise to the occasion with solutions, but I’m not so sure about that ... We need a whole new type of priesthood to stop this.”