Subscriber OnlySocial Affairs

‘The gun is to our heads.’ Trying to make Mass work for Dublin’s ever-fewer Catholics

Reduced priest numbers force parishes to join together to address ‘over-Massed’ schedules

So, Dublin is the most godless of them all. Well, the least Catholic. Last week, with publication of the 2022 Census results, we discovered that Dublin City Council has the lowest percentage of Catholics in any Irish local authority area, at 53 per cent.

It gets worse (from a believer’s perspective). The highest proportion of people with no religion in Ireland is in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, at 24 per cent, almost one in four. That figure is 23 per cent for the Dublin City Council area, 20 per cent for Wicklow and 17 per cent for Fingal.

Surprised? Few in the Catholic Church will be. With weekly Mass attendance now at around 30 per cent in Ireland and the findings of an Amárach Research poll last March that 41 per cent of Catholics who attended Sunday Mass before Covid no longer do so, the church has seen this drop-off “up close and somewhat personal” in all its parishes for some time.

It is being addressed in most dioceses.


Shortly after assuming office in February 2021, Archbishop of Dublin Dermot Farrell, told The Irish Times that celebration of Sunday Mass in every church would become a thing of the past and that a declining number of priests would require a greater role for lay leadership.

Speaking on the day of his formal installation as archbishop, he set out the state of play in Dublin’s Catholic archdiocese where its 197 parishes were being served by 350 active priests with an average age of 70.

“It’s certain that we won’t be able to celebrate Sunday Mass in every church in every parish in this diocese,” he said. “I think the Lord is probably saying to us at this time: I don’t want you to keep doing the things that you were doing 100 years ago, 200 years ago.”

Shortly afterwards, he initiated a consultation process throughout the archdiocese leading to his announcement last November that its parishes were being brought together into 15 “parish partnerships”, averaging between three and five parishes in each. “I am writing to each parish to confirm the partnership arrangements through which I am asking you to realign your efforts and energies to suit the times in which we live,” he said.

One of the first things these new parish partnerships were asked to do was review Mass schedules with the intention of having fewer and with larger congregations at each to assist a sense of community. They were asked also to ensure each priest was scheduled to celebrate no more than one Saturday Mass (morning or vigil) and two Sunday Masses at weekends and that he had time to meet the people afterwards.

The partnerships were asked to have their new Mass schedule prepared by April last with the intention that this would come into effect last month.

Terenure parish is in the south Dublin partnership with Templeogue, Willington, Greenhills and Kimmage Manor parishes. Their new Mass schedule (starting Sunday, June 4th) meant no 9.30am Mass at Templeogue, no 11.30am Mass at Terenure, no 9am Mass at Greenhills and that the 11.30am Sunday Mass at Willington is now at noon.

Administrator at Terenure parish, Fr Philip Bradley, said that as well as declining attendances, the drop in priest numbers was another great driver behind the parish partnership idea. In the discussions with priests and lay people locally, which followed Archbishop Farrell’s initiative in 2021, Fr Bradley said: “The immediate thing we discovered was that we were over-Massed when we looked at the schedule for our parishes.”

It became clear that even as “a Mass was taking place here, there was another one under way around the corner. It was even the case that the 11.30am Mass on Sunday in Terenure and the 11.30am Sunday Mass in Templeogue competed against each other,” he said. Looking at Mass times in all five parishes, they discovered “a lot of duplication”.

It was also difficult to generate a sense of community at a Mass where a small number of people were scattered around a church, he said. “It affected the celebration. It’s important to hold on to the sense of community in each parish.”

In his April 30th newsletter, Fr Bradley said that “the number of people going to Mass [before Covid] was falling and, now, it’s falling faster. When the church is only a quarter full, it affects the celebration. Also, priest numbers are falling. The gun is to our heads.”

With the new schedule and fewer Masses, it was likely there would be a larger attendance at each, “a better sense of togetherness”, he told The Irish Times. It was also “important to build a sense of community in each parish and that they not be dependent on ‘Father’”, he said.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times