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Broadford woman Marie O'Connell who has written a book entitled "Community At Heart - who will bury our dead?", photographed in St Flannan's Cathedral, Killaloe, which is featured in the book. Photograph by John Kelly

Author asks who will bury our dead, as priest numbers decline

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THE decline in vocations and the number of priests in the Killaloe Diocese has inspired a pastoral worker to write a new book outlining the need for more lay people to complete clerical duties.

“Community at Heart” – who will bury our dead?” examines past community and traditions in the catholic church, current reality, future possibilities and guidelines for pastoral councils.
It will be officially launched by well known author, David Rice in the Killaloe Hotel and spa on July 1.

Marie O’Connell has been a pastoral worker in the Diocese of Killaloe, a choir member, a dancer in an all-girl troupe, and a voice for women.

The University of Limerick administrator says she does her best writing in cafes, on park benches, on any beach, and at home in Ballina/Killaloe.

The mother-of-three believes it will not be long before a priest will not be available to attend funerals, so who will?

“Priests can’t be everything to everyone all of the time. I always ended my talk by asking the congregation to consider ‘what would you do if you didn’t have a priest’. Most parishes are in denial about this, do they think a priest can be magicked up?”

“It has been advised that deacons may lead the funeral liturgy and if a deacon is not available, a lay person with knowledge of the liturgy and traditions may lead the service.

“Through knowledge and love we may lay our dead to rest because we are the heart, hands, feel and face of the community and the world.”

The Broadford native attended St Joseph’s Secondary School, Tulla, played the organ in Broadford Church, was involved with the local choir and youth club and was a reader in the church in the seventies.

In 1978, she represented Ireland from Broadford Youth Club at an international youth conference in Strasbourg.

A few days after completing her Leaving Certificate, she started a new job with the Revenue Commissioners, having successfully completed a civil service exam earlier that year.

However, she never really settled in Dublin, travelling back to Broadford every weekend to participate in community activities in East Clare.

As part of decentralisation, she got a job with the Vehicle Registration Centre in Shannon in 1981 before moving to Eircom a year later where she worked until 1986. Her three children Tara (33), Niall (30) Niamh (25) attended Ballina National School and St Anne’s Community College, Killaloe.

In 2005, she enrolled in Mary Immaculate College as a mature student having sat the Leaving Cert a second time to demonstrate to the college she retained the ability to study.

At Mary I she completed an Arts degree in English and Theology before going on to do a post grad and a masters in adult and continuing education.

“I never had the opportunity to go to college, so did the Leaving the year my daughter did it. The first year was difficult, but thing I got into the swing of things. It was brilliant mixing with young people.”

In 2013, she got a job as an administrator in the Builders of Hope Pastoral Plan in the Killaloe Diocese working with Bishop Kieran O’Reilly, Fr Ger Nash, Maureen Kelly and Leonard Cleary.

In October that year, she became a pastoral worker with the diocese implementing the leadership and partnership part of Builders of Hope Plan in Clare for the next five years before taking up a job in UL.

She still gives confirmation retreats in the diocese on a voluntary basis.

With more than one third of the 58 parishes in the diocese without a resident priest under the age of 75, Marie calls for a different approach.

She believes it is time to embrace the “priesthood of the laity” and the “priesthood of love”.

“Although not ministers of the altar, laity in all their actions of their everyday life can truly offer as much if not more than the priest in their love and care for one another.

“The laity live in the world and work in it, they imitate Christ who came among ordinary people in an ordinary life, in order to save us. We as lay people can save each other through love, care and reaching out.”

There is a sign of hope for the diocese as there are 25 lay people trained in pastoral care and catechetics who are about to graduate.

New and current pastoral areas, as well as a Co-PP system came into effect in 2018. The intention is to relaunch this system.

There are 137 Christian communities in the diocese.

“How these communities will be sustained into the future requires serious reflection and conversation. This is what the pastoral plan was all about. This plan would ask every member of the community to exercise a more active role in the community. My role in the plan was to help people prepare for a changing situation.”

With elderly clergy not being replaced and so few new ordinations, she warned there is a new reality coming very quickly.

“Lay people may begin to take on roles previously reserved for priests. They may lead liturgical celebrations in the absence of a priest, others will assist in sacramental preparation.

“We need to understand that lay people may minister to the sick, bring communion to the housebound. They may receive funerals at the church and officiate at the graveside.

“Pastoral councils will become more involved in organising the various ministries in their areas and officiate at the graveside.

“Pastoral councils will become more involved in organising the various ministries in their areas and finance councils will assume greater responsibility.

“Education and training programmes should be put in place. All these changes will take time to process mentally. I grew up attending a catholic church with my parents. They were very different times.”

She believes it is time to give women more decision making roles as they are keeping local churches alive.

“If women were ordained as priests it would help. I wouldn’t like to be ordained as a priest. There needs to be a discussion on women priests. I would like to see women becoming more visible in the church. I have a vision of a welcoming church where everyone is welcome where we are open to love, to help others, to share our gifts and talents and make decisions together.”

“People need a sense of belonging and connectedness. We had this in the past with the church as the centre. Maybe we could still have this with people at the centre.”

The idea for the book came after visiting parishes across the diocese in her role as a pastoral worker. She found pastoral councils glazed over or lost interest with theological language.

Even though she was raised as a catholic, she is constantly questioning her faith and the catholic church.

“I don’t base all my ideas on catholicism any more because I don’t agree with some of its teachings. I believe in the basic backbone of Catholicism. I don’t see the church as very welcoming any more. I don’t think all the voices, particularly women’s voices are being heard.

“I think the bishops and clergy are accepting and are doing their best to bring about change. It is the laity who want things to stay the same. They want their church to be there for their baptisms, communions and confirmations.

“There are priestless parishes in West Clare where a priest comes in to say Mass once a week. There is a contingency plan for a funeral where lay people are being trained to receive the remains in the church. The priest will not be there any more to do this.

“More than 40% of priests are 70 or older. There are about nine in Maynooth who are ready to come out for ordination. The Diocese of Killaloe is looking at new ways to address this by bringing in priests from abroad and training lay ministers.

“We don’t need a hierarchy to lead us, we can do things for ourselves,” she said.

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