A wide-ranging review of Church buildings and Mass services is being undertaken across the Derry Diocese.
Indeed, Bishop of Derry, Dr. Donal McKeown, has warned that there will be more parishes than there are priests locally in the near future!
It has now been confirmed that deaneries across the diocese are meeting clergy and others and discussing possible structural changes, although it has not been confirmed where and how the changes will take effect as yet.
It is understood the future of chapels and Mass services and times are being examined.
The reviews within local parishes have come about as it emerged that despite the limited number of priests, there are 47 Masses staged every weekend in Derry city alone and the over 200 Masses across the diocese as a whole every Saturday and Sunday, at a time when many more people have access to modes of transport to travel to neighbouring areas.
In his Pastoral Letter for Lent, Bishop McKeown states that “in every generation and country, the Church has had to change in order to preach the Gospel effectively.”
In the letter, entitled ‘A People Fit for Mission,’ he said: “In the Derry Diocese we face the reality that a quarter of our priests will reach the age of 75 over the next eight years.
“Eighteen priests are approaching retirement age and we can expect to have only a small number of ordinations. If we have 51 parishes and less than 50 priests, then clearly not every one of the current parishes can have a resident priest.
“When we see the reality of a changing society and dropping clergy numbers, we have to restructure our ministries.
“Looking into the future, we have to be fit for purpose, if we are to bring the healing love of Jesus into so many dark corners.
“We have to see and acknowledge that reality. Wishing that things were different is not an option.”
Bishop McKeown also claimed that the character of the diocese had also changed and that the “old ways of handing on faith are no longer working.”
This is due in part, he asserts, to instant access to information and ideas from different sources and the recent scandals which have impacted on the Catholic Church.
“The former unquestioned authority of Church and church personnel has been damaged by those who abused power or sought to hide the truth,” he said.
Bishop McKeown said that in order to be fit for purpose into the future, a new way of being had to be found, which will include an increasingly important role for lay people and congregations.
“We need to undergo a pastoral conversion. We have to ask the hard questions - and not be afraid of the answers we get,” he said.
“Firstly, as a diocese we have known clearly defined parish boundaries. Each parish has been expected to do its job. But many of those parish churches were built in an era when no one had a car. The question is not ‘how do we stretch our clergy further to provide the same services?’ but ‘how do we discern God’s mission to evangelise in 2019 and in the years ahead?’ The system that was set up in the 1850s is not necessarily fit for purpose in the age of instant communication.
“Structures exist, not to be served, but to serve the mission of bringing good news and mercy where they are most needed. If our present ways of being Church in each parish are not making disciples for Jesus, we need to review them. Parishes need to consider how they go to outsiders and not on how they protect themselves and their comfort.”
The lay faithful, Bishop McKeown said, will have to become “active missionaries in their own community”, which will involve training so that local parish communities, under the leadership of their priest, have the “necessary confidence and skills”.
“It means giving priority and resources to building up parishioners in faith and not just to maintaining buildings,” he said.
But the Bishop said that this was not a time of despair or self-pity but a time of renewal and hopefulness.
“The reality of the need to change is not a source of despair for us. We may rightly feel uncomfortable. However, the greatest enemy of Church lies not outside us but in our frightened hearts. Our pride may be hurt – but our story is one that remembers a God who sees His people through all sorts of challenges and difficult times. We are always being asked by God to ‘put out into deep water’ even when we think that we have worked hard and caught nothing (Luke 5:4-5).
“For people of a biblical faith, today’s realities are just one more place where God will show his strength, despite our weaknesses – or indeed because of our weakness.”