THE Diocese of Limerick is losing six priests to retirement this year with only a single ordination expected in the next six years.
And it is against this backdrop that the Catholic bishop Brendan Leahy has announced a reshuffle of personnel across that will see some priests cover larger areas and changes in Mass times across the city and county.
Of the 115 priests of the diocese, only 78 are in active ministry in parishes and they will be expected to shoulder a heavier workload in spite of their advancing years.
Fr Brendan Murphy, Feenagh/Kilmeedy; Fr Garry Bluett, Manister; Fr Joe Kennedy, Croom and Banogue and Fr Gerard McNamara, Bulgaden/ Martinstown; are all to retire while Bishop Leahy has already accepted the retirements this year of Fr Pat Costello and Fr Terry O’Connell on grounds of ill health.
In what Bishop Leahy said promises to be a joyful occasion for the diocese, David Casey - from O’Connell Avenue in the city - will be ordained into the priesthood on July 19. But another ordination looks to be years away.
While parishioners can expect changes in the months and years ahead, Bishop Leahy said it was too early to talk of a crisis in the church in Limerick due to the lack of vocations.
“It will probably be another five or six years before we have another ordination. Thankfully, lately a number of men have indicated an interest in going for the priesthood. I hope we will see an increase in the number entering the seminary in coming years.
“That said, while we can’t yet talk of a massive crisis, as relatively we still have a reasonable number of priests in Limerick diocese, we do need to recognise that the services we have provided until now will change.
“The ageing profile of priests will mean we will have to shape differently the way we provide ministry in the diocese. It is important for priests to work more in teams, supporting one another and also working together possibly serving a number of parishes.
“Some of the city parishes are very large and I am concerned that we have only one priest in some of them. There are parishes where previously there were two or three priests but now there is only one. But the demands, if anything, are increasing,” the bishop stated.
“While there is a change in the clerical profile of the diocese, I am very encouraged by the strong presence of lay volunteers in many aspects of parish life in the diocese. Literally thousands of lay people give of their time, ideas and service in parish school boards of management, financial and pastoral councils, child safeguarding procedures, altar service, baptismal teams, ministries of the Word and of the Eucharist, church upkeep and cleaning, sacristy service, prayer and study groups, hospitality, Vincent de Paul Society, parish visitation and events organisation.
“We can never be grateful enough for this generous commitment to the organisational life of the church that contributes much to social cohesion in parishes and local communities.”
The changes announced this week will take effect from September 14 and include:
n Fr Austin McNamara moving from St John’s in the city to Loughill/Ballyhahill, where Fr Gerard O’Leary is going on sabbatical leave until July 2015
n Fr Noel Kirwan, St Michael’s, becoming administrator of St John’s Cathedral
n Fr Leo McDonnell, curate, St John’s, taking up a role as PP in St Michael’s
n the switch of Fr Oliver Plunkett from Donoughmore/Knockea to St Joseph’s in the city, where Fr Frank Downes will be parish chaplain
n the transfer of Fr Thomas Mangan from St Joseph’s to Donoughmore / Knockea
n Fr Patrick Bluett, curate in Newcastle West, succeeding Fr Murphy as PP in Feenagh/Kilmeedy
n the switch of Fr Damian Ryan from Our Lady of Lourdes in the city to Manister
n Prison chaplain Fr John Walsh becoming the new PP in Our Lady of Lourdes
n Canon Willie Fitzmaurice moving from Kilmallock to Croom and Banogue
n Fr Joseph Shire taking over as PP in Kilmallock while continuing as PP in Ballyagran and Colmanswell
n The appointment of Kilmallock curate Fr Joseph Cussen as PP in Bulgaden/ Martinstown
And in other changes, Fr Leslie McNamara, recently returned form the missions, will work in the Cathedral Pastoral Area and Fr Eamon Purcell, curate in St Patrick’s, is named chaplain at University Hospital Limerick.
Fr Liam Enright, diocesan advisor to primary schools, is going on study leave to Rome and is replaced by Fr Sean Harmon, curate in St John’s.
Months of consultations with priests and pastoral area teams had gone into this week’s announcements, the bishop said.
“I appreciate some people will be upset to see their priest moving on but the change, if lived well, can be fruitful for the priest and for the parish.”
“I am grateful to people for their goodness to priests. It is always moving to hear people speak so fondly of their priests. There is no doubt that the relationship between priests and parishioners is very deep. Priests are present at key moments of people’s lives - weddings, baptisms, first communion and confirmation, sickness and celebrations, bereavement and funerals.
“To be a priest is a wonderful vocation and priests are always grateful for the huge support people offer them.”
Any changes in mass times after September, meanwhile, would be “worked out at local level in consultation with the parish, pastoral area and priests involved,” a spokesman said.