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Ireland starts lay funeral ministry as priest shortage peaks

Irish graveyard

Gabo | Shutterstock

J-P Mauro - published on 01/05/24

With only 44 priests to tend to the needs of 85 churches, lay Catholics are being trained to hold funeral services in order to assist the overburdened clergy.

The shortage of Catholic priests in Ireland is forcing the Church to implement new practices. Recently, the Diocese of Clogher has introduced a new funeral ministry in which lay funeral ministers will be tasked with taking on roles traditionally performed by priests. The move is expected to help lighten the workloads of overburdened priests on the Emerald Isle.

The new lay funeral ministry was initiated by Bishop Larry Duffy who wrote in a pastoral letter that it is part of a plan to move away from a “clergy-dependent” model. The letter went on to remark that the move would not diminish the services offered to families at the time of death, but he called it “a strengthening of the local parish commitment to accompany people at such a difficult and sensitive time.” 

The first group of 40 lay ministers have been trained in the Diocese of Clogher, where they will conduct “funeral services” in 12 parishes. Obviously these services will not be a Mass.

The bishop wrote that there have already been requests from several other parishes within the diocese to take part in the ministry, while noting that prospective ministers would need to be nominated by their parish. The next batch of lay funeral ministers could begin training as early as Spring 2024. 

The training of new ministers, however, will be largely dependent on the success of the new program. Traditional Catholic funerals include a Mass, which can only be celebrated by a Catholic priest. Lay ministers, instead, may read from the scriptures, speak on behalf of the deceased, and pray beside the gravesite. They cannot celebrate Mass, and thus such funeral services will not be able to provide a Mass, though the ministers could be delegated to distribute Communion.

Bishop Donal McKeown, of the Diocese of Derry, has previously warnedthat individual Masses per funeral may soon no longer be the norm in Ireland. The shortage of Catholic priests in Ireland has affected just about every Irish parish, where there are only an estimated 2,100 priests working in the entire country. 

Too few priests per Catholic

While 2,100 priests seems like a goodly sum, the number becomes inadequate when considering how they are tasked with tending to an estimated 3.5 million Catholics in Ireland. Furthermore, of these 2,100 priests, 547 are within 15 years of the mandatory age of retirement, 75, and some 300 priests are continuing to work after the age of retirement, because there are no seminarians ready to fill their spots. The Irish Independent noted that there is only one seminarian in all of Ireland expected to be ordained a priest in the next seven years.

In the Diocese of Clogher, where there are 37 parishes and 85 churches, there are only 44 priests and two deacons to go around. This means many priests are pulling more-than-double duty, traveling to multiple churches each week to celebrate the Sunday liturgy. The introduction of a lay funeral ministry will be a boon to these overburdened priests, but it is only a stop-gap. Bishop Duffy suggested that if more vocations do not start coming in, the Diocese of Colgher could have fewer than 10 priests by 2043. 

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