An Irish diocese is preparing for life without priests, and warning that by 2035, just fifteen years away, between just five to seven priests will be serving the diocese’s 22 parishes.

– “We need to start preparing parishes”

“Since 2002 we have had just two ordinations, that is one a decade”, Diocese of Killala priest Fr Brendan Hoban told The Tablet March 11.

“So, by 2035, seventeen of our parishes will be without a resident priest.

“We need to start preparing parishes for sustaining their faith communities in the years ahead and put structures in place to sustain worship when a priest might visit only occasionally”.

The Killala diocesan plan for preparing parishes to thrive without resident priests has been coming to fruition via a three-year “listening process”.

That process, going by the theme of “Placing Hope in Faith”, has involved the consultation of some 1,500 diocesan parishioners on issues around the future of the Church and how to fortify the leadership of laypeople.

– Fruits of the “listening process”

The 2018 survey of Killala parishioners revealed that 85% of the faithful in the diocese believe that priests should be allowed to marry, and 81% agree that clerics who left the priesthood to marry should be permitted to return to the active ministry.

The anonymous poll also shows that 86% of Killala Catholics believe Catholic sexual morality should be reformed, to be more widely accepting not only of LGBTQ Catholics but also of divorced believers in second marriages or otherwise ‘irregular family situations’.

80% of diocesan Catholics believe, furthermore, that women should be allowed to be ordained deacons, while 69% are in favour of women priests.

All of those votes from the 1,500 parishioners were condensed into reform proposals in areas such as family, youth, women in the Church, lay participation, inclusion, management of parishes and prayer and accepted by a 300-strong diocesan assembly in July 2018.

The Killala listening process is now moving into its final stage, in which laity and priests together will discuss how to implement those proposals coming out of the diocesan assembly.

– Backing from the bishop

As Fr Hoban told The Tablet, the first meetings – to be held this month – in the final stage of the Killala listening process will revolve around two themes: consolidating effective parish councils and planning for the regular celebration of a Family Mass in every diocesan church.

Three lay leaders have been elected to oversee this final stage, and they will be looking, in particular, to ensure the independence of parish councils above and beyond the whims and preferences of the local priest.

In the meantime, Killala bishop John Fleming has reaffirmed his support for the listening process reforms, telling a local radio station that both and the priests of the diocese back the drive for more lay leadership because “we want to continue the level of pastoral care and pastoral support in this diocese that the people of the diocese deserve”.

Fleming added that the whole process had been inspired by Pope Francis’ repeated calls to embrace synodality in the Church and to flee from clericalism.

At the outset of the process, Fleming had promised to put into action those changes to Church life desired by the diocese that were in his power to implement.

Those that were beyond his competence – such as the ordination of women deacons and priests – Fleming promised to pass on to the nuncio in Ireland so that he, for his part, could pass them on to the Vatican.

More on Novena on the Diocese of Killala’s “listening process”:

Overwhelming majority of faithful in Irish diocese want married and women priests, more respect for LGBTQ+

More on Novena from Ireland:

“Punch in the stomach”: Nuncio in Ireland blasted for ignoring female Church reform group co-coordinator

Full statement: Irish Catholics warn hierarchy: “Women will no longer put up with second class status”

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Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.