09 June 2023, The Tablet

New warning of priest shortages to come

The 33 parishes and 71 churches of the Diocese of Raphoe are served by 48 active priests.

New warning of priest shortages to come

The Cathedral of St Eunan and St Columba in Letterkenny, the seat of the Bishop of Raphoe.
Miguel Mendez/flickr | Creative Commons

New figures show a serious shortage of priests is pending in at least one diocese in the Catholic Church in Ireland.

A survey of every parish in the Diocese of Raphoe has shown that each priest’s workload includes celebrating nearly three weekend Masses as well as five weekday Masses, with funerals, weddings, baptisms and sick calls on top.

In a message to the people of the diocese, Bishop Alan McGuckian highlighted how currently 33 parishes and 71 churches are served by 48 active priests.

He said the current age profile of priests in the diocese “tells us that a further shortage is coming, and changes are coming sooner for some parishes”.

The survey was done between 13 February and 5 March this year and included figures for Mass attendance, the number of Masses per parish and other needs of each parish. 

The survey reveals that the numbers attending Mass are much lower than previously and that the age demographic of the majority of those who attend Mass is over 40. Just 35.3 per cent of Mass attendees are under 40 years of age while 64.7 per cent of those attending Mass are over 40 years of age.

The age profile of the 48 active priests shows that three are in their eighties, eight in their seventies, ten in their sixties, 14 in their fifties, 10 in their forties and three in their thirties. There are four men in formation for priesthood.

“Although we are blessed to have people in formation, it is still not enough to cover a shortage down the line,” Bishop McGuckian said.

In ten years, if the current trend continues, there will be more parishes in Raphoe than priests. The best case scenario is that the diocese will have 35 to 40 priests to serve its 33 parishes and 71 churches.

The bishop said the findings had financial implications for the diocese in relation to maintaining property and covering heating costs, with increased strain on parishes already struggling.

“When I look at the statistics...my desire is that our planning for the future is not simply a matter of managing decline,” Bishop McGuckian said.

He said that celebrating the Eucharist “in the most beautiful way” will not be possible if “a small number of priests are overburdened with leading services for ever smaller numbers of people”.

Underlining that “change is certainly coming,” he said the challenge for the diocese was to make decisions now “that will stand us in good stead, ten years and 20 years from now”.

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