A bishop has given his support for a specially devised delegation process for the ordination of women priests.

Killala diocese, made up of 22 mainly rural parishes in north Mayo and west Sligo, undertook the process with the blessing of Bishop John Fleming as part of its efforts to arrest the decline of the church in the area after an analysis of priest numbers indicated that, by 2037, the 22 parishes of the diocese would be served by five or six priests.

A spot survey of all Masses over three consecutive weekends indicated that attendance overall was just 29%. A steering committee made up of representatives of the four deaneries — two women, one lay man, and a priest in each — as well as a priest co-ordinator and Bishop John Fleming looked at how to explore issues within the diocese.

According to Fr Brendan Hoban, a member of the Association of Catholic Priests, Bishop Fleming gave a commitment that whatever suggestions emerged that were within the diocese’s capacity to pursue would be incorporated into diocesan policy.

He said that whatever suggestions emerged that were not within the diocese’s capacity would be forwarded to the Irish Episcopal Conference and to the Apostolic Nuncio who would be asked to forward them to the relevant authorities in Rome.

Initially, 1,500 people across the diocese were surveyed anonymously on a range of broad questions, with the feedback then being processed by the Institute for Action Research in Kerry and ultimately turned into proposals that were then voted on by a representative assembly.

That 300-strong diocesan assembly, which included delegates from the 22 parishes, then voted on a range of issues, while 120 people participated in 10 focus groups.

The vote found that:
85% backed the view that priests be allowed to marry;
81% supported priests who have married being returned to active ministry;
80% backed women being ordained to the diaconate;
69% agreed that women be ordained to the priesthood.
The delegates voted 86% in favour of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and those excluded from the Church being changed to reflect the inclusion of all people regardless of sexual orientation, marital status, or family status.

“The position was it was about what we would do in the diocese,” said Fr Hoban.

“There was no point us deciding that we were going to ordain women or married men as we don’t have the ability to do it, but we could control organising lay ministers in a different way. The agreement was that whatever came up out of the survey was going to be put in a set of proposals to delegates from each parish.”

The action programme based on the findings will get under way next January.

“It was a respectful adult consultation with the people,” Fr Hoban told the Irish Examiner. “This is new in the sense that it is completely open-ended, nothing ducked that people wanted to talk about.”

Findings from an Irish Examiner/ICMSA opinion poll of farmers and rural families found that 74% of respondents said religious services have been cut back or curtailed in their local area and that 73% backed the ordination of female priests.

Last year, an Irish Examiner special report showed at least half of the 25 archdioceses and dioceses around the country have seen an aggregate fall in the number of priests serving within them in the past five years, while almost half have parishes which have had to reduce the number of Mass services they can offer.

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