One priest, helped by 30 volunteer ‘apostles’ in West Cork parish

Just how does a busy parish operate in today’s Ireland? Clonakilty in West Cork is an example of the new model, writes Noel Baker

One priest, helped by 30 volunteer ‘apostles’ in West Cork parish

AT THE onset of the busiest week of the year, Monsignor Aidan O’Driscoll has a comprehensive to-do list, and a dedicated group of people to help him forge through it.

Priest for the thriving parish of Clonakilty in West Cork, he says that the area has not been immune to the fall in numbers within the priesthood, from four, to three, and then two. With his colleague recovering from an illness, he is his own man this Easter week.

“We have seen profound changes over the last 20 years and certainly in the recent past, especially that there is such a shortage of priests,” he says. Monsignor O’Driscoll can recall when the parish had its own chaplain for the local Mount Carmel Hospice, who also worked for the community college in town. The numbers have, like everywhere else, shrunk over the recent past. Of the pastoral care offered within the parish, he says: “It continues today, but in a different way.”

He would balk at the suggestion that he is a one-man band in this week of weeks, because he has an accompanying orchestra helping him through it all, in the form of the local parish assembly. This volunteer group of 30 people has become pivotal to the day-to-day running of the parish, sharing the workload to an extent that might have seemed unthinkable just a few decades ago.

The latest iteration of the parish assembly was formed last September, with a new assembly formed every three years. According to assembly member John McCarthy: “It’s a change of faces and a change of thoughts.”

The assembly is broken down into four subgroups: liturgy, faith-enrichment, community, and youth and family. “We meet once a month to discuss what’s ahead and prepare and plan based on the liturgical year,” John says, adding that the structures only work so well because of the autonomy given by Monsignor O’Driscoll.

“He is extraordinary on trust,” John says. “That is why Clonakilty is so progressive — we don’t have the micro-managing which other places might do. He is light years ahead, giving people autonomy and authority to work. Once the monsignor gives the green light, we work within the guidelines.”

A new team has been able to help with liturgies for funerals, and this funeral ministry has, in just the last month, been complemented by the addition of a bereavement group to assist anyone suffering any kind of loss.

There is also a baptismal team, who walk families through the preparations, and Monsignor O’Driscoll believes that the second Vatican Council, back in the 1960s, helped to establish the building blocks for the enhanced role of the laity in the running of the Church. “Only for the involvement of the laity, it would be profoundly difficult to run the Church today,” he says.

This prompts the question — as outlined forcefully by former president, Mary McAleese, earlier this year — as to whether the Church should not embrace female priests. Monsignor O’Driscoll says this issue can be left to “the wisdom of the Pontiff” and the Holy Spirit, but he adds that “we have to be open to debate”.

Clonakilty, with its spot on the Wild Atlantic Way and its recent growth in population (and with the expected building of new social housing), might not share the characteristics of smaller parishes in more remote areas, where the population has ebbed away.

“In our diocese, we have clustered some parishes, where priests in a cluster will help one another,” the monsignor says. “The small churches and many parishes are experiencing difficulties through not having a resident priest.”

He says praying for vocations is still important, but delays his answer when asked if he believes the number will rise in the future.

“That is a really good question. Ireland has changed in many ways. I think there will always be vocations, but regarding the extent, I don’t think it will be as maybe what we had in the past. It’s not all doom and gloom. There is also change going on. It unsettles us; maybe we have been used to a model of the Church. Maybe it will be a different model for the 21st century.”

In an increasingly secular Ireland, it is easy to forget the depth of faith that still exists within communities and the spirit of volunteerism that fuels it.

John McCarthy refers to the monitoring of the sacraments, with people freely giving of an hour, so there is always someone in the church. “I sometimes sit there, at the back of the church, and watch people come and go — it’s amazing,” he says.

As he puts it, given the changing face of the Church in Ireland, “the laity will have to rise to the occasion.”

The visit to Ireland, later this year, by Pope Francis may, Monsignor O’Driscoll believes, have a galvanising effect.

“We have our faith,” he says. “It has been handed on to us from generation to generation. It has changed, but we have it.”

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