07 February 2023, The Tablet

Structural changes needed to offset clergy decline, warns bishop

Bishop Donal McKeown has set out significant changes to offset the decline in clergy numbers in the Diocese of Derry.

Structural changes needed to offset clergy decline, warns bishop

Bishop Donal McKeown, pictured in 2014 when he was appointed to the Diocese of Derry.
Brian O'Neill

In 2032, when Ireland celebrates the 16th centenary of St Patrick’s arrival, the Diocese of Derry will have just 35 priests for its 51 parishes, Bishop Donal McKeown has warned.

In his pastoral letter, “God has plans for His people. Join in the Mission of Prayer, Exploration and Renewal”, the Bishop of Derry sets out possible significant structural changes to offset the decline in clergy.

These will see large city parishes in Derry remain as individual parishes with at least one priest while he recommends that parishes outside Derry city create missionary pastoral communities with at least two priests in each.

Appealing to the people of the diocese not to focus on maintaining the current model and structures, Bishop McKeown says that “tinkering with the current system is not the divine solution” adding that “renewal is not only a question of managing changed structures and rescheduling parish Mass”.

In the pastoral letter, he acknowledges that like much of Europe, the Diocese of Derry faces many difficulties. These include smaller congregations at Mass.

“Where smaller numbers attend Mass, there is a lesser chance of bringing people to know and love Jesus, of numerous vocations to priesthood and religious life,” he writes.

Bishop McKeown also admits that the scandal of abuse and cover-ups from the past have damaged the Church’s ability to speak about Jesus with moral authority and “to a large extent we have failed to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus to young people”.

“We face a secular culture which has little time for faith communities and the problem in the future will not be religious difference so much as religious indifference.”

Synodal conversations in parishes recognised that the Church in the Diocese of Derry is in a period of transition.

There were many suggestions about how the Church needs to change in relation to the role of women, or who should be ordained and sexual morality.

Though he acknowledges that these are important issues, the bishop says that the key question is not “merely how we change so that we can maintain the current model and structures”.

“This is a time where we need to make space for grace so that God’s plans – and not our limited imagination – can renew the mission of the Church,” he said.

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