Radical restructuring of large diocese planned to help parishes cope with dwindling number of priests


ONE of Ireland’s largest dioceses has introduced a radical new structure of ‘faith-centred communities’ to meet the challenges of the increased demands faced by rapidly aging clergy and the reduced number of young people attending church ceremonies.

The Bishop of Cork and Ross, Dr. Fintan Gavin, unveiled a new structure that will divide the sprawling diocese into 16 “families of parishes” and aims to increase and improve the involvement of lay staff in the operations of the church to ease the workload of elderly clergy.

The Diocese of Cork and Ross – one of the largest geographically in the Church of Ireland – will celebrate the ordination of a new priest in September.

However, 12 clergymen – many of them over 70 years old – are to step down from their previous duties.

Its 69 parishes now operate under a streamlined structure of 16 landscaped areas.

dr Gavin released a special pastoral letter outlining the radical plan – and the draft is now expected to be adopted by other Irish dioceses facing similar community-level challenges.

“It is important to realize that this image is not unique to our diocese but is replicated across Ireland, Europe and indeed most parts of the western world,” he said.

“It is part of a much larger societal change that we cannot control.

In fact, the challenges we face are similar to the challenges faced by large institutions throughout the western world.

“We must acknowledge these tremendous changes and the sense of loss we feel for times gone by. We must allow ourselves to grieve and acknowledge this loss and the pain that it brings.”

The bishop warned that radical new approaches are needed to lead the church into the future.

New structures will be operational across Cork from September – with 12 ‘Community Families’ in the first phase.

A key objective will be to encourage young people back to active church participation, to increase the duties of the laity, and to efficiently manage the workload of clergy, many of whom are now elderly.

“I have often been told, ‘You have a very difficult task ahead of you, Bishop.’ A system that has served us well in the past is crumbling,” he said.

“In the past, the local church was also the faith community – where you went to mass, you met everyone, young and old.

Many parents and grandparents are now expressing their sadness that their own children no longer practice their faith or seem interested in church affairs.”

Under the new structure, the diocese will have 16 “parish families” – each administered by a team of priests.

Each priest will be based in a specific parish but will minister throughout the family of parishes.

“Bringing parishes together as families of parishes provides an opportunity for much greater lay participation and common leadership of parishes,” he said.

A key goal is to maximize efficiency and reduce the workload of senior ministers.

“Initially the team will be made up of priests, but I hope that lay leadership and more commitment will increase over time. It will mean parishes working much more closely together, sharing their gifts, talents and resources, including their priests.”

dr Gavin said the new structure was developed after his arrival as bishop in June 2019 and involved multiple visits to individual parishes.

“I felt a very strong tradition of faith, built over many years, of which parishes are rightly proud,” he said.

“A lot of things work well in the parishes: choirs, acolytes, funeral teams – and much more. Unfortunately, these visits to the parishes had to be suspended due to the pandemic and could only be resumed when it was safely possible. “

But he said it is clear the church faces challenges at the diocesan level to engage larger numbers of young people.

“Many lamented the fact that many of our young people are absent from our churches on Sundays. At the recent CONNECT event for young adults, the loudest message from these young adults was how isolated and alone they sometimes feel at Sunday Mass – because most of the people there are ‘much older’. The link between our parish schools and our parish community is weaker than it used to be.”

dr Gavin said that while it was wonderful to see so many young people attending First Communion and Confirmation ceremonies, it was “disheartening” to see how few actually participated in the faith.

Another challenge was the rapidly aging profile of clergy in the Diocese of Cork & Ross, as well as in other Irish dioceses.

“There is an awareness that our priests are getting older and fewer young men are choosing to become priests,” said Dr. Gavin.

“This was expressed at the priestly meetings in November as we reflected on what has been termed the ‘predictable future.’ Some spoke of the imminent retirement of more priests in an already tense situation – which could mean more work, aging, ill health and the fear of burnout, the fear of further strain for the priests.

While Cork & Ross gets a new young priest in September, 12 priests are due to retire.

“While a small number will continue to serve as assistant priests, most have understandably decided that they would prefer to withdraw from their appointments entirely,” he said.

“In addition, some religious provincials are recalling priests to their orders this summer and will not be able to replace them.

“Every crisis also brings an opportunity for new possibilities. If we allow ourselves to dream, we can regain hope and a sense of opportunity.”

“Priests spoke of a church where all people are welcome, valued and valued, especially the poor, where the role of women is valued and valued, and where all participate in decision-making.

“Change is inevitable. Our parishes cannot stand still. We can’t go back either. But how we react to change can be very different.

“This is a radical new beginning, a fresh start.

“It won’t be easy, and there will be challenges and teething problems—but as we listen to the Holy Spirit working through us, I believe we can build this church together.” Radical restructuring of large diocese planned to help parishes cope with dwindling number of priests

Fry Electronics Team

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