Mass cutbacks threaten future of rural communities

By Aoife Kearns

It’s a Saturday evening. Sitting at the kitchen table, my laptop is open and aside from the regular distractions that most 22-year-olds give into, such as WhatsApp notifications, or opening the Facebook tab to name a few. At ten-past-seven every week, there is another distraction in my house. In the kitchen, there’s a scramble for car keys, upstairs a fight over the shower and in the sitting room my 89-year-old Grandmother sits, immaculately dressed, handbag on her shoulder, waiting for the 10 minutes of madness to end so she can be on time.

I was once a part of this madness. Five years ago, I would have been pacing the landing with a reading in my hand, recounting a story that St. Paul told the Corinthians. Admittedly, I was focusing more on the delivery, but I was always happy to be given the opportunity to read and, in my own way, help the community. I was never a natural reader, to be honest the fact it didn’t come easy was one of the reasons I put myself forward in the first place. The nerves that I felt were always lessened by the knowledge, that everyone who was sitting in the church was a neighbour, a friend or acquaintance, or a part of my family that dutifully attended mass every week.

Nowadays, this scene is very much the same, but the location has somewhat changed. From this month onwards, St. Killogue’s Church Kilnaspic in the parish of Mooncoin, Co. Kilkenny, is one of the many Catholic churches in the diocese of Ossory, (whose parishes include parts of Kilkenny, Laois and Offaly), that will no longer hold weekly mass. Instead ceremonies will now be held once a fortnight. As I sat at the table with my laptop on that December evening, the difference was that my family weren’t going to meet their neighbours outside the church-gate for a chat, or visit the grave, as this change had already come into effect.

In his Winter Pastoral letter, Bishop of Ossory, Dermot Farrell addressed these changes outlining what it will mean for the churches impacted. He said: “Beginning on the First Sunday of Advent there will be changes in the number of masses in our parishes.

“These changes reflect the changing character of our parishes and communities; not only the effect of fewer clergy, but also the need for greater collaboration between parishes.”

In relation to what this might mean for the future, Bishop Farrell said:

“This is an exciting time in our Diocese, new shoots are emerging, new supports are being given, and new structures are developing. It is ordinary, and yet always extraordinary, to see our community, all of its members; discussing, responding, growing, and continuing today what the Lord began with the Apostles long ago.”

These “exciting” times that the Bishop refers to, are certainly not the sentiments reflected by everyone who has been impacted by the change. As someone who grew up with Kilnaspic Church on my doorstep, to me, it is one of the remaining things that brings the people within the surrounding areas together. Although the church is located within the parish of Mooncoin, the people of Kilnaspic have had their own identity throughout history. Be it the short-lived Clogga hurling team of the 1940s, or Aylward’s shop that ceased operation in the early 1980s, this small pocket of the village was once a smaller remote village with its own amenities, and innate sense of community.

One major fact that I have left out of this idyllic image of the Church and area, is that the number of people attending mass in Kilnaspic and other small churches and parishes nationwide, has decreased significantly. I am one among others in my generation that were raised Catholic, but don’t attend weekly mass. For some people it might be a case of clashing schedule in our increasingly busy lives; for others it might come down to a lack of interest, or disillusionment with the current practices and past failings within the larger organisation.

This falling number has been in reflected national polls conducted by the likes of the ESRI and Amárach Research, which saw church attendance drop from 56% to 35% in a ten-year period alone. In Dublin, The Irish Times reported that in 2016 weekly mass was as low as 2-3% in some parishes. This national downward trend was one of the reasons for the decision, to cut back on weekly masses throughout Ossory, and the verdict was made following a headcount as Mooncoin Parish Priest, Fr Martin Tobin explained.

He said: “The Bishop asked us to have a look at the schedule of masses that were in each and every parish, and as a result of that he took a look at the number of churches that were in each parish.

“He then took a survey of how many people were attending mass, which was conducted over three weekends in November of 2018, and if my memory serves me correctly that came in at about 24%. From this figure it became clear that there were far too many churches and masses for the population.”

In terms of the knock-on effect that the cut-back will have on rural communities, Fr Tobin acknowledges that there will be a danger in these places losing an important meeting point.

He said: “I would be one of the few that would have felt rather uncomfortable about taking the masses out of the smaller communities as the churches are in one sense, their source of identity.

“How do we survive these changes and remain a kind of entity? While equally acknowledging the reality of the situation, at the moment we do not have enough priests to cover the present structure considering male celibates are the only people allowed do all of this.”

Kilnaspic is one example of the once bustling townlands of rural Ireland, that now have little to no amenities left aside from the church. With masses being cut in these areas, there is a sense of foreboding fear felt among locals that religion aside, their sense of self could be under threat. The development has already been rolled out in this part of the country, but is inevitably going to happen in other parts of Ireland in the near future.

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