Parish faces into future without a priest

THE parish of Allihies on the Beara Peninsula is steeped in history, with a mining heritage that goes back to the Bronze Age.

But it’s about to enter the history books for another reason. In a few weeks’ time it will become the first parish in the Kerry Diocese not to have a resident priest.

There are no longer enough priests to go around and Beara, half in Cork, half in Kerry and sparsely populated on both sides, is considered able to survive the removal of one priest and have the remaining three between them minister to the peninsula’s four parishes.

New rosters will have to be put in place to provide Mass and other sacraments, and to cover scheduled events. They were already reworked three years ago when the number of priests on the peninsula dropped from five to four. But questions remain about events that clash and about emergency access to a priest when the nearest will now be 25 minutes drive away.

Fr Jim Lenihan, who has called Allihies his home for the past three years, admits he doesn’t have all the answers when people ask how the arrangement will work.

“There have been preparations made over the past year but how it’s going to play out, we really will not know until it happens.

“There will probably be teething problems for the next 12 months and there is some uncertainty. We’ll just have to address issues as they arise the best we can.”

Fr Lenihan says “we” in the general sense as he may not be in Beara at all by the end of next month, though where he’s being redeployed to, he isn’t yet sure.

“The way things are going, you could end up being parish priest for the whole Dingle peninsula,” he jokes, although the scenario is not incredible.

The way things are going is illustrated by the mathematical calculations set out by Fr Ger Godley, co-ordinator of pastoral development for the diocese.

The diocese currently has 53 parishes and 63 active priests, only 13 of whom are under the age of 50. The last ordination was in 2007 and there is no one from the diocese studying for the priesthood.

Put those factors together and in five years’ time, Fr Godley estimates there will be just 50 active priests, only seven of them under the age of 50, and that as many as 12 parishes will be without a resident priest.

Jump further ahead to 10 years from now and the number of priests will be down to 35, there will be just four under the age of 50 and 28 parishes — more than half the parishes in the diocese — will be without a resident priest.

Fr Godley concedes that the prospects look daunting.

“Certainly there is a lot of change happening and of course people are affected by that.

“A lot of priests feel disappointed. A lot of them have worked their whole lives in the priesthood and they’re getting older, and then you look behind you and don’t see anyone following you.

“And for younger priests, they look ahead and it’s quite a challenging future in store. There is a sense of, wow, where is all this leading to?”

It’s not just priests who have to adapt to the changing times — parishioners who have taken it for granted all their lives that there is a priest living among them now have to get used to the idea of the priest as visitor.

Bishop Bill Murphy, himself now at retirement age, seemed to anticipate some unease when he announced the plans for Allihies earlier this month. In his announcement he stressed the regret with which he made the decision and tried to be as reassuring as possible that parish life would not suffer. “This decision was not taken lightly and only after much reflection and discussion. I am well aware that this will come as a great sadness to you,” he said.

Fr Jim Lenihan echoes those sentiments. “It’s the nature of life as a priest to be moved around so, while I’ll miss Allihies, it’s the people I’ll feel sorry for. They will certainly be very disappointed and saddened.”

In preparation for having to ration priests, the diocese two years ago drew up a pastoral plan, dividing the diocese in 12 pastoral areas or parish clusters, and prioritising the strengthening of parish councils so that there will be sufficient lay ministers in place when priests are thin on the ground.

In his work, Fr Ger Godley is constantly travelling around the diocese meeting such groups and says their enthusiasm enables him see the current crisis as an opportunity to give the laity a more active role in their church. But he accepts not everyone will be comfortable with the changes. “People will be asking themselves, ‘Am I okay if it’s a lay person who receives the funeral at the church or says prayers at the graveside’. People have not yet got their heads around exactly what the simple lack of priests will mean.”

Priests too are not always thrilled with the idea of their work being confined to the sacraments because they simply haven’t time to get out and about among their parishioners.

“That’s a big, big concern for priests. The relationship between the priest and the people is so important because people are used to the priest journeying with them through happy and sad times and priests feel valued for doing that.

“The journey is still going to happen, but the priest will be just one part of it. He’ll be there for the sacrament, but maybe not for the preparation for the sacrament. There’ll be lay ministers doing that. But that will build a strong sense of community, so that’s a good thing.”

Fr Lenihan also emphasises the positives. “I have had nothing but unbelievable support from the people of the parishes I have worked in. There is fantastic spirit there and that is what will sustain parishes even when there is no priest physically present.”

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