Britain Facing a Priest Shortage

Church Closings and an Aging Clergy Are Signs of the Times

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LIVERPOOL, England, JAN. 14, 2001 ( .-
Britain´s 4 million Roman Catholics have been warned that they are running out of priests, and that weekly Mass will soon become a rarity in hundreds of churches, The Independent reported today.

The number of priests in England and Wales has fallen from 7,000 in 1980 to 5,500, mainly as a result of retirement and death, the newspaper said. According to some estimates, half of all priests are now aged 60 or older, it added.

Increasingly worshippers will be asked to travel miles to neighboring parishes on a Sunday, according to the Church authorities. They will also be called on to do many of the parish duties now done by the priest.

Already the Catholic Church has started to merge parishes and close churches in East Anglia, Shropshire and Liverpool, Britain´s most Catholic city. Liverpudlians have been incensed by plans to shut six of their inner-city churches, The Independent said. Sixty of the city´s parishes have already been reduced to just 27.

Until now, the growing shortage of priests has been overshadowed by the series of child-abuse scandals in the Church, which have seen 21 priests convicted for offences against children, with further cases pending, the newspaper noted.

Despite the headlines generated by the abuse cases, the shortage of priests is potentially a more damaging problem for the Church, putting almost intolerable strain on some existing clergy, who often soldier on well past retirement age, the newspaper said.

Peter Stanford, Catholic author and commentator, said: «We´ve seen elderly priests having physical breakdowns because of the pressure they´re under. When they´re 65 it´s assumed that they´ll just carry on ­- basically until they die in the job. It´s a huge problem for the Church on all sorts of levels. In the past they would have had two or three priests carrying out parish duties. Now they only have one.»

Father Kieron Conry, a spokesman for the Catholic Church in England and Wales, believes that Catholics will have to accept traveling much further to attend Mass than at present.

«It´s happening already,» he told The Independent. «There are some dioceses where the number of priests doesn´t exceed by much the number of parishes. Some of these parishes would have had three people in them 20 years ago.» He said that increasingly lone priests will rely on help from parishioners to keep the Church functioning.

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