Can Dundalk afford cost of so many Masses?
ONE group praying for a mild winter this year are the town's clergy.
The reason is not altogether to do with the ability of townspeople to cope with the hardship of a prolonged cold spell but in the sufficiency of their own resources to heat the churches for which they are the caretakers.
Last winter, which was milder than most, soaring oil prices placed a severe strain on the resources of local clergy and at times a number of the town's churches had to remain unheated during weekdays, while a special collection had to be taken up to supplement the heating budget for St Patrick's and St Nicholas'.
Dwindling congregations attending weekend Masses and the demands on the budgets of those who do attend has inevitably led to smaller returns from church plate collections and this has accentuated the problem.
The reality is that Dundalk, like many other towns across the country, will soon have the face the hard question: does it need, or can it afford, the number of churches currently in use?
Over the weekend a total of 29 Masses are celebrated in the town's eight churches, starting at 6pm vigil Mass in St Patrick's and ending with the 6 o'clock Sunday evening Mass in the Holy Redeemer.
A few years back the continuing problem of the declining number of priests in the town led to some rationalisation in Mass times, which was accepted by congregations as inevitable.
Some maintain that a further reduction in the number of Masses at weekends is necessary, with the obvious example being the vigil Mass on Saturday nights when seven Masses are celebrated between 6pm and 7pm across seven churches.
The problem with any attempt to interfere with the current list of Masses available at weekends is that it brings an understandable resistance from congregations who have attended Mass at the same time and in the same church all their lives. It also brings into focus the desire of the various religious orders in town, the Dominicans, Marists and Redemptorists, to maintain their own churches and serve their own congregations which, again, is very understandable.
But the reality is that declining vocations and congregations, and the cost of maintaining our churches, will eventually lead to the unspoken scenario being considered, the closure of one or more or our churches.
That is a prospect many do not want to face up to and rightly so for all the town's churches, even the newest, the Holy Family and St Joseph's in Castletown, have a very special place in the hearts of townspeople who were either baptised, married or had their loved ones buried from one of the churches.
To avoid that outcome perhaps it is time for all the clergy in town to meet and set out their own thoughts with regard to further rationalisation of Mass times and even perhaps, another unthinkable, rotating Masses between churches on alternative weekends.
Last winter some new thinking was brought to the weekday Masses in St Patrick's when the small congregation attending 8 o'clock Mass during Lent was adequately accommodated in the Conference room, which was comfortably heated.
The combination of the many factors involved will undoubtedly mean change but that change should be managed through innovation and consultation.