MAJOR changes are being planned in the way that local Catholic parishes are organised in a bid to combat the impact of dwindling numbers of priests.
The proposals are currently being considered by the Derry Diocese, which covers large areas of West Tyrone.
They are set to include a radical and ground-breaking new approach to how Mass and other services are provided.
It comes as one local priest, Fr John Gilmore in Aghyaran, announced at the weekend that he is to retire from his Ministry in the coming months.
Drumquin Parish Priest, Fr Kevin Mullan, has also reduced his clerical duties in the past year due to ill-health.
One of the options being examined will see a group of priests led by a Moderator coming together to cover the two urban parishes of Omagh and Newtownstewart and the rural areas of Aghyaran, Castlederg and Drumquin.
A second group is expected to include the large urban parish of Cappagh alongside Greencastle and Gortin, with Strabane sharing resources with Sion Mills, Leckpatrick, Dunamanagh and Doneyloop.
The second option would include parishes clustering together, similar to the format which has been operated in the Armagh Diocese for the past decade.
Speaking to the UlsterHerald, the Vicar General of the Diocese of Derry, Fr Paul McCafferty, said the plans were needed to address the declining number of priests.
“Bishop Donal McKeown, has initiated discussions around a Pastoral Vision and how to accommodate it around the fact that there will be a smaller number of priests,” he said.
“It is important to stress that this is still at the very early stages of consideration and is a medium-term project for the diocese. The models will also ensure that individual parishes retain their identity.
“One of the models will mean one Parish Priest covering a number of different parishes.
“The second would see a group of priests coming together to share responsibilities around a number of different parishes. In each model, the aim is to ensure that we continue to do our very best for all parishioners and their parishes.
“At the moment, we are simply exploring these options, but the reality is that things are changing fundamentally due to the reduced number of priests.”
Earlier this year, the Derry Diocese published its Diocesan Pastoral Plan for the period from 2018 until 2021 which emphasised the growing participation of parishioners in the organisation of their own parish communities.
Entitled ‘God is Love’, the Bishop Donal McKeown stressed that the implementation would involve a ‘major refocusing’ of what is done in parishes.
“As each parish community develops its own capability, it can begin to take responsibility for its pastoral priorities and take the first steps towards addressing those priorities – whether using their own resources or working co-operatively with neighbouring parishes,” he said.