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The 2016 Catholic Directory tells us that Ireland has 2,652 Catholic churches – one for every 1,725 Catholics. A lot of them are in rural parishes. Dublin diocese has a church for every 4,673 parishioners, while the figure for Killaloe diocese is 897 and 786 in Killala. Even within individual dioceses congregations vary in size, with some country congregations being well under 100 people. Our rural churches were mostly built at a time when these parishes had very large populations and transport was difficult. There were lots of priests back then and frequent celebrations of the Eucharist. Those days are over. Much of rural Ireland is becoming depopulated. Agriculture employs fewer and fewer people and new sources of employment have not made up for the shortfall. Less people means less services and in many rural parishes the only facilities available are those offered by the local church, primary school and GAA club. We have also experienced a pronounced drop in Mass attendance and in vocations to the priesthood and a consequent drop in the number of priests available to celebrate the sacraments in our churches.

The future of our churches

Do we still need all our rural churches? The clear majority of them are in a good state of repair, which is an extraordinary tribute to the faith communities that support them. People feel attached to their churches. They are where their own and their ancestor’s key moments were celebrated. Memories of baptisms, first Holy Communions, confirmations, weddings and funerals create strong bonds. People like to call in for a moment to light a candle, utter a prayer. Thus far, extremely few have closed. Congregations have certainly shrunk. There are fewer people in the community and not everybody feels the need to attend weekly Mass, particularly if it is not a special occasion. Some wonder if there will continue to be congregations in some parishes. The priests have also become fewer and older. Second curates were the first to go, followed by the remaining curate and increasingly the resident parish priest as parishes are clustered. Priestless parishes are no longer a novelty. Efforts to keep our rural churches and their faith communities alive, born of virtue and of necessity, have seen lay involvement grow, priests delay retirement and returned missionaries help. Some dioceses have introduced the permanent diaconate.

We are now at the stage where most country churches have just one Mass either on Saturday evening or Sunday morning. However, the lack of ordinations suggests that our rural dioceses will not be able to maintain even this level of service for much longer. The available clergy are likely to focus on the larger congregations. So, what next? Can smaller, rural faith communities centred on their parish church remain vibrant?

Do we need so many rural churches?

Should we continue to use scarce human and financial resources to maintain church buildings in remote locations that are used by fewer and fewer people? People can easily drive to a neighbouring parish for Mass and the other sacraments. They are already making the same journey for shops and other services. The financial burden of maintaining these buildings is borne by an ever-reducing number of shoulders. Our countryside is dotted by the remains of old abbeys and monasteries that have served their purpose and now lie in ruins. There came a day when the altar candles were blown out in these churches for the last time. So maybe we could close some churches, pool our resources and have fewer but better attended and more prayerful liturgies in the remaining churches.

An alternative point of view contends that we should do all we can to support small, rural parishes. Often the church is the only remaining community focal point. The church was built and maintained by their forbearers in poor times and are living monuments to faith. People are attached to their local church. The universal Church had its origin in small communities meeting in each other’s homes. Perhaps a return to an intimate sharing of the faith might breathe new life into our contemporary Irish Church.

Weekly liturgies

Is it possible to continue celebrating weekly Masses in all our churches? The decreasing number and increasing age of our priests would suggest not. We could perhaps move the Sunday celebration to perhaps a Friday evening, as already happens on some of our off-shore islands. But Sunday (Dies Domini) and its vigil are special days and people are reluctant to move their weekly shared prayer to a weekday. The permanent diaconate can contribute greatly especially in the areas of administration, charity, sacramental preparation and the celebration of some sacraments. However, it is difficult to envisage a situation where sufficient deacons will be available to compensate for the decline in the number of priests. In any case, only priests can preside at the Eucharist. Some Irish dioceses have invited priests from Africa or Asia to minister in their parishes. However, in most cases these priests leave behind countries where the Church is still young and that have a far lower ratio of priest to believer than Ireland. We continue to pray and to hope for an increase in vocations to the diocesan priesthood but God’s time is not our time.

Lay led liturgies

A proposal that is gaining traction is that of liturgies led by lay people. The National Centre for Liturgy recently published a volume of essays and resources on the celebration of lay led liturgies on weekdays. This is already happening in some Irish parishes on weekdays and less frequently on Sundays. Lay led liturgies keep the praying community alive, its church open and allows people of faith respond to the Lord’s invitation to gather to pray on the Lord’s Day reflecting the vocation of all the baptised. Our own seventeenth century history is testimony to a faith community surviving despite having few priests. Thankfully, our situation today is not so extreme. It is likely that we will continue to have sufficient priests to frequently visit and celebrate the Eucharist even with our smallest communities for the foreseeable future.

We are facing a situation that is beyond our contemporary experience as Irish Catholics. The sight of our parish Church closed or empty and the contrasting memories of when people flocked to it on Sunday mornings creates sadness. Only priests have led public worship in our churches for the last several centuries. The first essential step is prayerful reflection by and discussion among people of faith.

Perhaps communities who are unable to have a celebration of the Eucharist in their own Church could travel to join a neighbouring community for Sunday Mass each week? Mass could alternate between Churches. Neighbours could offer lifts to those without transport thereby strengthening the bonds that underpin community. There is, after all, an obligation to participate in Sunday Mass. Yet, we have always accepted that there are circumstances, especially distance, which render it impossible to fulfil this responsibility. The fundamental invitation/obligation is to pray.

There are other issues. Catechesis is needed. What form should a lay led liturgy take? Might the liturgy of the hours be appropriate? The most popular form of lay led shared prayer in Ireland has always been the rosary. Some feel that lay led liturgies should follow the broad structure of the Mass which sometimes prompts the retort that this will lead to confusion. Should the leader offer a reflection as part of the liturgy? Might this become a vehicle for the promotion of his/her personal devotion. Yet we need to have God’s word broken for us. This points to the need for careful formation. Should liturgies led by lay people include the distribution of Holy Communion? Some say that we shouldn’t deprive people of the Eucharist and point to the Good Friday liturgy as a model. The pragmatic wonder if people will attend if Holy Communion is not distributed. Others conclude that the canonical conditions which permit the distribution of Holy Communion in church outside of Mass do not currently exist in Ireland. Much prayer, reflection and discussion is needed before bishops decide.

Identifying leaders in small communities may prove a challenge. The best people to lead prayer are people who pray. They need to enjoy good relationships with their community and possess an ability to be flexible and to collaborate. Presiding at community prayer shouldn’t be the preserve of any single, individual person but be conducted by a team reflecting the make-up of the praying community. Training and the provision of resources is needed. A commissioning ceremony and a fixed (perhaps renewable) term also seem appropriate. Ongoing formation, support and supervision are always beneficial for people in leadership.

Changed landscape

The landscape has changed but the essentials remain unaltered. The Church is the people of God which gathers in prayer. The Lord continues to reach out to us. For centuries, every person in Ireland could respond to the Lord’s call by participating in Sunday Mass in their local parish church. That will not be the case for much longer. Nevertheless, the Lord’s invitation to ‘Do this in memory of me’ will always be the wellspring of our lives as Christians.

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