An Irish priest has appealed to Pope Francis to help keep open scores of rural parishes that will inevitably close over the next two decades if the bishops persist with their current policies.
Fr Tony Flannery has hit out at the controversial practice of "clustering", which is being implemented across Ireland as a way of dealing with the massive decline in priest numbers.
He warned that closure inevitably follows clustering, and in an Irish context this would contribute to the "needless and unnecessary destruction of rural communities" in the same way as the closure of rural garda stations and post offices has done.
Instead, the Redemptorist believes the Catholic Church needs to introduce married clergy and hand the running of parishes over to community faith leaders.
Fr Flannery said that within 10 years, half of all parishes in Ireland would have no priests and within 20 years three-quarters of them will be priestless.
"Clustering is a way of trying to keep the show going with older priests, but it will inevitably lead to where the Americans are at now, which is the wholesale closure of parishes," he said.
His call came as 200 people held a protest meeting in recent days in the parish of Ballymore in Co Westmeath, calling on the Bishop of Meath, Dr Michael Smith, to retain a full-time resident priest in their parish.
The current parish priest, Fr Philip Smith, who is 79, is retiring after 24 years at the helm.
Bishop Smith recently announced that a priest from the neighbouring parish of Drumraney would take over responsibility for Ballymore, but in a non-resident part-time role.
Responding to Ballymore parishioners' criticisms, the bishop said he did not have enough priests to go around.
Fr Flannery said one of the consequences of clustering was that "older priests find that in their 70s they are now under more pressure with more work than 20 years ago when they were in the prime of their life".
He said another drawback was that having priests going from parish to parish meant they did not have the intimate connection with the community as they had in the past.