More than 40 laymen and laywomen in the Diocese of Clogher in the north of Ireland will soon begin presiding over funeral liturgies amid a shortage of priests.

A major vocation crisis could result in fewer than 10 active priests in the diocese in less than 20 years, according to the local ordinary, Bishop Larry Duffy.

“Over the past few months, over 40 people from 12 parishes across the diocese have taken part in a formation course to enable them to accompany people and families at the time of bereavement,” Duffy, bishop of Clogher, announced in a Christmas pastoral letter Dec. 16.

Other parishes have indicated a “willingness” to nominate people for a similar course in the spring, he wrote. 

In the letter, he said that the lay ministers would lead the “liturgy of reception of the body at the church and the Rite of Committal at the graveside.”

Duffy said the lay ministers will continue to be trained over the “coming months” and be commissioned to preside over funerals in their parishes. “We are very grateful to all those who have come forward for the formation and training and to the priests of those parishes for their involvement,” he said. Duffy asked for prayer for the new ministers. 

He said that the ministers will be “commissioned publicly to act in the name of the Church” and added that “this is not a lessening of service to families and loved ones at the time of a death but, rather, a strengthening of the local parish commitment to accompany people at such a difficult and sensitive time.”

Duffy announced in a July pastoral letter that the northern Irish diocese has a severe shortage of priests and will be ordaining just one priest in the next seven years. By CNA’s count, the diocese has 72 priests and deacons covering about 40 parishes and 85 churches.

“The figures given to us indicate that if we continue as we are, in less than 20 years there will be fewer than 10 priests covering the 85 churches across the whole diocese — from Bundoran on the Atlantic to Inniskeen and Killanny near Dundalk,” he said.

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A shortage of priests

“The truth is that we cannot continue to operate and provide pastoral ministry across our diocese in the same way as we do now or as we did in the past,” Duffy said in July. He said that there would be fewer Masses as a result of the lack of priests.

Duffy said that the diocese is “far too dependent” on priests for pastoral care, administration, property maintenance, planning, and parish governance.

The “well-being” of clergy needs to be a “priority area for immediate attention,” he said.

“We need to move from a model that is clergy-dependent and based almost solely on sacramental provision to one that is broader in terms of recognizing, utilizing, and honoring the vocation and varied gifts of all the baptized and which will, over time, allow for really effective and meaningful co-responsibility in the Church’s mission,” he said.

In 2021, a survey by the Association of Catholic Priests found that only about 30% of Catholics in Ireland attend Mass weekly — a significant drop from 91% in 1975.

In 2022, a survey from the Irish organization Association of Catholic Priests found that 2,116 priests serve the nation’s 26 dioceses, which consists of more than 2,650 churches or “Mass Centers,” according to the Irish Times.

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That survey also found that almost 15% of priests are over the age of 75 and “still working,” while more than a quarter are between the ages of 60 and 75, the outlet reported. That survey found that only 52 priests in the country were under 40 years old, and 464 priests were between the ages of 40 and 60.