Down & Connor – Lay People Called to Ministry

May 28, 2023 | 3 comments

Dr Donal McKeown, Bishop of Derry and Administrator of Down and Connor

Now faced with a crisis of ordained priestly manpower, every lay person in the diocese of Down and Connor is ‘called to collaborate alongside priests and deacons to build and renew the Church’, according to Bishop Donal McKeown, administrator of the diocese since January 2023.

In a dramatic pastoral letter for the feast of Pentecost 2023 the bishop gave a stark account of the challenges facing the diocese, which is no longer able to head each of its 86 parishes with at least one ordained priest and now needs to recruit lay people for basic ministries such as the conducting of funeral services and catechesis – instruction in the Christian faith.

With 86 parishes and 146 churches the diocese now has only 84 priests in active ministry.  Only seven priests in the Diocese are aged under 40 years of age, and so, in just over 10 years the number of priests in active ministry will be almost half what it is today. By 2043 from now there will only be approximately 24 priests available for those 86 parishes.

“We urgently need to move from a Church where ministry and leadership was exercised primarily by priests and religious to one where all the baptised take up the call to minister and to lead.”

“As early as this summer, some parishes will be engaged in a pilot project of lay women and men helping families prepare for funerals and leading the prayers at gravesides or the crematorium. Very soon, it is also likely that in some parishes, the celebration of a Requiem Mass for every individual as part of the funeral rites may no longer be the norm.”

Being called by name lies at the heart of our identity as baptised people. Baptism is not merely an entry point to other sacraments. It is making ourselves available to be used for God’s greater glory and for the salvation of the world. The acceptance of Baptism says that our first vocation is to become saints, dying to ourselves so that Christ’s new life can be born in us. Ministry is a calling for all of us.”

To read Bishop McKeown’s complete pastoral letter, click here.


  1. Peter Torney

    As a lay Catholic member of the Dioceses to which this Pastoral letter is addressed, I was moved by the spiritual earnestness and good will evident in the text. As an elderly Catholic lay man, I have given much thought to what the bishop has said, and I feel moved to make the following comment if I may.

    Bishop McKeown sets out eloquently the stark reality of the current decline in the number of priests available for sacramental and pastoral ministry in the Diocese, and the necessity of the laity discerning their future role in ministry in the face of this deteriorating crisis. A problem not unique to this Diocese.

    Nevertheless, I could not shake the impression (perhaps incorrect) that the nature of the proposed solution, of more involvement by the laity in ministry at funerals and weddings for example, while earnest, could be likened to the metaphor of ‘moving the deckchairs around on the deck of the Titanic’, whilst the urgent necessity was for a significant change of course if the ship is to be saved from disaster.

    In the light of this current crisis then, perhaps such a change of course requires the extension of the power of sacramental ministry (including the celebration of the Eucharist) to be extended to include lay women and men, both married and single, suitably trained, and empowered through the Episcopal laying on of hands, and able to assist the priests when necessary.

    Such persons don’t need necessarily to take on a Pastoral role. In the worker priest movement in France in the late 1940s (crushed by the Vatican in the early 1950s) the priests worked in factories, or like today where some priest members of the religious congregation inspired by Charles De Foucault, Les Petits Freres de Jesus, work in the community when not in the ‘desert’.

    Thus, the sacramental ministry for a lay person who has received the laying on of hands, would keep their current role whether as carpenter or accountant, or nurse or teacher. Indeed, I recall a well-known Belfast surgeon who was also an Anglican priest; he celebrated Holy Communion Service in a central Belfast Church of Ireland Parish at the weekends, but got on with his medical work during the week.

    This solution would of course be criticised by many priests and laity for a variety of no-doubt well-argued reasons. And it would require a major rethink and theological discussion of the notion of ‘priesthood’ and ‘sacramental ministry’. But my impression is that many of the synodal reports from Diocese’ throughout the country seemed to be implying just this trend with their wish amongst other things for greater inclusion in sacramental ministry of married women and men. Perhaps this is the Spirit speaking.

    To tinker only at the edges by including the laity here and there in sacramental ministry without confronting the problem head on, is like sitting by the bedside of a terminally ill patient, generously and kindly rearranging the sheets, while hoping for some miraculous intervention from the Holy Spirit to change the inevitable demise of the patient – in this instance the demise of the Irish Catholic Church.

    Such intervention by the Spirit may happen of course. But for certain, Bishop McKeown hit the nail squarely on the head when he said, early in his text: “Dying to old certainties was central to the new life of the early believers. (cf. Acts 10)”

  2. Sean O'Conaill

    You are surely correct, Peter, in diagnosing the cause of the shortage of priestly manpower as a failure of the clerical church to adjust to the realities of society today.

    I have already recorded here my belief that Jesus never called anyone to a secondary role in the church. All are called to the same deep conversion – and ministry flows necessarily from that, according to the talents and gifts of those called, irrespective of gender differences. The empowered male clerical ministry we have inherited from the past is truly a relic of an imperial system – modelled more closely upon a conquering army than upon the original Christian communities.

    You are also surely correct in advocating that ordination be seen as compatible with a secular career, rather than as requiring a separate and distinctly ‘priestly’ way of life. It is this misunderstanding that has completely negated the priestly calling that belongs to all – the common priesthood flowing naturally from our baptism. And this has impacted in turn upon our understanding of the Eucharist as symbolising and nourishing the lives of personal sacrifice of the whole congregation – all of those sacrifices that can alone fulfil our baptismal ‘calling’.

    To adapt a saying of St Paul, the church is currently groaning as its seeks a new creation, shorn of an ecclesiology that insists upon a cultic priesthood ‘in charge of’ the rest of us. The Gospel will see us through but meanwhile we must witness the collapse of a system that is no longer viable.

  3. Peter Torney

    Thanks, Sean, for the link. It was a really interesting read as were many of the comments.

    There must be some bishops who think along the lines of significant change set out in your piece.

    But then I recalled the scandalous treatment of Bishop Bill Morris of Toowoomba in Australia around 2011. He had suggested the Church think about ordaining married men and women, and was quickly sacked or at least forced to resign. An appalling abuse of power by the official Church, and recognised as such by many.

    So, I suppose it’s not surprising there are relatively few Bishops willing to go public with such ideas. I recalled at the time of the bishop Morris scandal the old phrase used about executions during the French revolution – “pour encourager les autres”!

    It seems to have worked. I would imagine few bishops who agree with Bishop Morris are going to stick their heads above the parapet after witnessing that disgraceful exercise in authoritarianism. They will of necessity hide behind the official party line.

    Indeed, the way the members and head of the German Bishops Conference have been bullied by Vatican officials over their synodal pathway material indicates clearly that this authoritarian mentality has not gone away. I’m sure there are many other examples.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This