Derry running out of priests

Fr. Michael Canny, Adm, St. Eugene's. (0403C44)
Fr. Michael Canny, Adm, St. Eugene's. (0403C44)

The Derry diocese is running out of priests, a leading local cleric has said.

Fr Michael Canny has predicted that in less than 15 years “at least a dozen parishes” could have no parish priest. The Templemore administrator and diocesan media liaison officer based his prediction on the significant reduction in the numbers of people entering the priesthood in recent years.

In 1990 there were just short of 150 priests in the diocese while today there are just 86 including 50 parish priests, 22 curates under the age of 75 and 14 retired clerics who continue to “help out” in parishes. According to Fr Canny the number of parish priests under the age of 75 by 2025 will be 41. He added: “In that scenario, given that some will be involved in hospital and other specialised ministries, we will have at least a dozen parishes without a resident priest.”

However, in reflecting the dwindling numbers of priests in the diocese - and throughout the country generally- Fr Canny was keen to stress that congregation numbers have plummeted in recent decades. “We estimate that in rural or country areas attendances are no more than 35% generally while in the city areas the attendance are as low as 10%.

“So maybe in 15 years time 40 priests in active ministry in the diocese will be more than enough in proportion to the numbers who will be worshipping regularly.”

However, the Inishowen-born priest acknowledged that Mass-goers will “no doubt” be shocked when told they no longer have a full time parish priest. “That said I am of the opinion that when the Bishop announces that a parish is to be without a resident priest there will be pandemonium.”

He said that parish identity and the presence of a priest “have been part of the Irish thinking” for many generations throughout history.

Another problem facing the diocese is the differences in population from parish to parish. For example, in some Derry city areas one priest could be expected to run a parish with well over 10,000 people while some of the rural priests might have at most a thousand, some considerably less.