The bishop of Galway, Dr James McLoughlin has announced plans for a major restructuring of parishes and Masses in his west of Ireland diocese from early next month, because fewer priests are available. The bishop's announcement came as the country's main seminary, Maynooth College, announced that it has only twelve new students in total for ordination this year. Last year it had 22. Prospective ordinations from the other seminaries in both the Republic and Northern Ireland and among religious orders have also fallen dramatically. But Galway is one of the worst-hit Irish dioceses as far as vocations are concerned with no priests are expected to be ordained for Galway for the next six years. The diocese currently has 67 clergy in ministry but retirements mean this will fall to 41 by the year 2016. The bishop's reorganisation plan will entail grouping adjacent parishes in clusters of three. Where no priest was available for one of them, or when its priest was ill, it would be served by clergy from the other two parishes. The re-arrangment will lead to a cut in the number of Masses. Dr McLoughlin said the arrangements would come into effect from July 13 and said he was aware the changes, which were made following an extensive consultation process with the diocese's priests, would inevitably cause inconvenience to some people. "But I would ask that in a spirit of co-operation and sacrifice, they be accepted by all," he said. "It is intended that this schedule will be reviewed in three years' time and it is my hope that the parish groupings which have been put in place will bring about a greater spirit of co-operation and development. "It is also my hope that these groupings will form the basis for a process whereby priests and parishioners together will discern the best ways to plan and resource the requirements for the future mission of the diocese. "In all of this we can be sure that God's spirit will be with us to guide our deliberations and undertakings." The president of the National Conference of Priests of Ireland, award-winning preacher Fr John Littleton, said that Irish people will have to get used to travelling ten or more miles to attend Mass, just as many do to shop or see a film. Fr Littleton, who is a curate in the village of Doon, Co Limerick, said he believed Ireland was currently "over-Massed" and warned people should not expect Sunday Masses which attracted only 25 people in the congregation to continue. He said many of these Masses were unnecessary and would have to be rescheduled because of the availability of fewer priests. "The number of people going to church is reducing and we have to ask, do we still provide the same number of services. The same number of services are not necessary. This has to be handled very gingerly and in a collaborative way between priests and the people." Fr Littleton said the proper order of the Church would be restored as lay people became more involved. "Up to now we've had so many priests that lay people were overlooked," he said. Priests, he said, had been distracted from the essential nature of what the priesthood is. "They have been chairs of the board of management of schools, they've been organising replacement teachers and school repairs. They've had to raise money for church rebuilding." "These kinds of tasks have nothing to do with being a priest. They are really there to help people express their relationship with God. There's no point in denying there's a fall in vocations. "When we talk about a crisis, we are only in a crisis because we don't do anything different." He said one of the greatest problems facing Irish priests was burnout and their caring profession was a "constant draw" on them.
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