The Catholic Church is facing its biggest overhaul at the parish level in nearly 100 years, ending the tradition of a priest in charge of a parish.
To cope with the drop in attendance at masses, the drop in vocations and the rapid aging of the clergy, the parishes will be grouped together, each administered by a team of priests.
The Diocese of Cork and Ross – Ireland’s fifth-largest diocese by Catholic population – yesterday unveiled its sweeping response to a renewal program demanded under the Vatican’s synodal track.
Under the new structure, the 69 parishes of the diocese will be reorganized into 16 “parish families” – each administered by a team of priests.
Each priest will reside in a parish but will minister throughout the family of parishes.
A church source said the Cork and Ross plan, which will be rolled out from next month, is likely to be widely adopted by many of the island’s other 26 dioceses, all of which face similar challenges.
The Diocese of Dublin recently announced that it was appointing parish priests to oversee several parishes. All dioceses are to have their renewal programs ready by a major conference in Rome next year, which aims to prepare the Irish and global church for the challenges of the 21st century.
Pope Francis wants the Church to be fully renewed at the parish and diocesan level and recommitted to young people.
“It’s fair to say this is the biggest change the Irish church has seen at the parish level in living memory,” said a Cork cleric.
All Irish dioceses have been urged to renew their structures to attract more young people to the church, to increase the work of lay staff, to reduce the pressure on increasingly aging clerics and to optimize the use resources at the parish level.
The Bishop of Cork and Ross, Dr Fintan Gavin, has 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 of whom are over 70, are due to leave office in the coming months.
Announcing the new structure yesterday, Dr Gavin said: “A system that has served well in the past is collapsing.
“We need to recognize these huge changes and the sense of loss we feel for times past. We must allow ourselves to mourn, acknowledging this loss and the pain associated with it.
“It is important to be aware that this image is not unique to our diocese, but is replicated across Ireland, Europe and even most parts of the western world.”
The new structure of Cork and Ross has drawn mixed reactions.
Father Jerry Cremin, parish priest of Kilbrittain parish in County Cork, warned that while the proposal attempted to address the decline in the number of priests, “I expect it will have no effect in this direction”.
He said he thought resources would focus on basics like the sacraments, preaching and teaching, at the expense of pastoral programs.
Father Tim Hazelwood, parish priest of Killeagh-Inch parish in County Cork, said the move only “delayed the inevitable”.
“We have some really brilliant names like ‘parish family’ that cover the inevitable,” he said. “A fundamental change must occur for the church to survive.”
Father Hazelwood, who is a spokesman for the Association of Catholic Priests, said that whatever the Church does structurally, unless it addresses what emerged from comments during synodal consultations – such as the role of women in the Church and the teaching of the Church on human sexuality – “we are not going anywhere”.