The Catholic Church is facing into its biggest overhaul at parish level for almost 100 years, bringing an end to the tradition of a priest being responsible for one parish.
In a bid to cope with falling mass attendances, reduced vocations and a rapidly ageing clergy, parishes will be clustered together with each administered by a team of priests.
The Diocese of Cork and Ross – Ireland’s fifth biggest diocese in terms of Catholic population – yesterday unveiled its radical response to a renewal programme sought under the Vatican’s Synodal Pathway.
Under the new structure, the diocese’s 69 parishes will be reorganised into 16 “families of parishes” – each administered by a team of priests.
Each priest will be resident in a parish but minister across the whole family of parishes.
One church source said the Cork and Ross blueprint, which will be rolled out from next month, is likely to be broadly adopted by many of the other 26 dioceses on the island, which are all facing similar challenges.
The Dublin diocese recently announced it was appointing parish priests to oversee multiple parishes. All dioceses must have their renewal programmes ready by a major Rome conference next year, which aims to prepare the Irish and global church for the challenges of the 21st century.
Pope Francis wants the church to fully renew itself at parish and diocesan level and re-engage with young people.
“It is fair to say that this is the greatest change the Irish church will have seen at parish level in living memory,” one Cork cleric said.
All Irish dioceses have been asked to renew their structures to attract greater numbers of young people to church involvement, to increase the work of lay personnel, to reduce pressure on increasingly ageing clerics, and optimise the use of resources at parish level.
The Bishop of Cork and Ross, Dr Fintan Gavin, unveiled the new structure which will divide the sprawling diocese into 16 “families of parishes”.
The Diocese of Cork and Ross will celebrate the ordination of a new priest in September. However, 12 clerics, many aged over 70, are due to step aside from their responsibilities over the coming months.
Announcing the new structure yesterday, Dr Gavin said: “A system that served well in the past is crumbling.
“We need to acknowledge these huge changes and the sense of loss we feel for times past. We need to allow ourselves to grieve, acknowledging this loss and the pain associated with it.
“It is important to be aware that this picture is not unique to our diocese, but is replicated throughout Ireland, Europe and indeed in most parts of the western world.”
There has been a mixed reaction to the new structure for Cork and Ross.
Fr Jerry Cremin, parish priest of Kilbrittain in Co Cork, warned that while the proposal was trying to address the fall in the number of priests, “I expect it to have no effect in that direction.”
He said he believed resources would become concentrated on basics like the sacraments, preaching and teaching, at the cost of pastoral programmes.
Fr Tim Hazelwood, parish priest of Killeagh-Inch in Co Cork, said the move was just “postponing the inevitable”.
“We have very glossy names like ‘family of parishes’ which covers over the inevitable,” he said. “A fundamental change needs to happen for the church to survive.”
Fr Hazelwood, who is a spokesperson for the Association of Catholic Priests, said that whatever the church does structurally, unless it addresses what has come out of the feedback in the Synodal consultations – such as the role of women in the church and the church’s teaching on human sexuality – “we’re going nowhere”.