Lay voice more vital than ever to Church renewal says Bishop

Laity can’t be reduced merely to a ‘plan B’

The Church in Ireland must take creative steps to help laypeople be more involved in the life of the Church, a leading priest-theologian has said.

As Church leaders discuss greater lay involvement, Fr Tom Whelan, a prominent specialist in liturgy, said that the Church had to move beyond panic about the shortage of priests, and look at how laypeople could lead weekday celebrations.

His call was echoed by Prof. Eamonn Conway, Head of Theology, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick who warned that engaging the laypeople should not be seen as ‘plan B’. “There is a real need now to rediscover the essential and integral role that the laity play in the life of the Church,” he said.

Fr Whelan said he was concerned that a certain panic has set in regarding the shortage of priests which is not necessarily warranted.

“If we are to look at our situation in an international context then we need to admit that we have not yet reached crisis point.

“That is not to say that crisis is not around the corner but we have not reached crisis point yet,” Fr Whelan said.

He was speaking as the hierarchy circulated a discussion document about how parishes should continue to celebrate the liturgy on a weekday in the absence of a priest. A major liturgical conference also took place earlier this month to consider options around what parishioners can do when there is no priest available to say Mass.

Bishop of Kildare & Leighlin Dr Denis Nulty said “there is absolutely no doubt that lay people are and should be at the centre and at the heart of the Church in Ireland.

“In the past there was a plenitude of priests which did not necessitate the involvement of the laity to the extent that is required today.

“Lay people are vital to the life of the Church given the shortage of priestly vocations today. They live out their baptismal calling through this involvement,” he said.

Fr Whelan said that “laypeople absolutely can, and in some cases already have, stepped up the plate in terms of becoming more involved in leading prayer and liturgy”.

He said that Church leaders have to “knuckle down and work towards being ready for what will become a less clerical Church”.

“We often do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Lay people ought to have a stronger role in ministry and leadership of the Church – but not just because there is a shortage of priests,” Fr Whelan said.