Parishioners lead funerals and baptisms as priest numbers dwindle

Parishioners are leading funerals and baptisms in parts of Australia because many small towns have long periods without the presence of ordained ministers.

A Catholic pastoral worker in the north-west of New South Wales, Mary Anne Gordon, says she spends about half of her time on the road conducting funerals, baptisms and other services in the area.

When the local priest is unavailable, Gordon’s pastoral area covers an area of about 90,000 square kilometres.

She says even with herself and the priest they could not always be around if a funeral was required.

This in turn forces families to look for other options at what is already a distressing time.

“Recently we had a problem where both of us were away and there was a funeral in one of our villages, and eventually the family settled on a pastor from another denomination and they led the service,” she says.

“You like to have your first choice and if you’re Catholic you like to have a Catholic priest if you can, or somebody Catholic doing your service.”

In another western NSW town, 20 people recently learned how to conduct a range of liturgical services in a course run by the Australian Catholic University (ACU).

One participant notes “In a rural community we don’t often have the opportunity for a weekly mass celebration.

“Also in the case of funerals and baptisms where we don’t have a priest, it’s really important that we as a community have the capabilities and the knowledge to step up and preside over those important events for people.

“In fact, this particular small town has had a parish priest for four years but when the previous one retired they were left on their own for months.”

The period without a priest saw parishioners step up to help.

“It was left to me to organise weekend services and visiting the hospital, so I simply asked people to help and from there we’ve just contributed when we’ve had no priest around,” parishioner Beth Coffey says.

Parishioners initially started doing Sunday services but there was soon a need to preside over funerals as well.

Coffey says the church dealt with the same issue in the early days of European settlement, and that it could actually make faith communities stronger.

“A priest would come on horseback once a year and he would marry everyone that wanted to be married and baptise all the babies that needed to be baptised and the people were used to burying their own families.”

“So we’re sort of going back to times that we’ve already had in that we’re quite accepting of lay people leading us in our faith when we have to.”

Getting younger people involved and ordaining women as priests and bishops are seen by some parishioners as viable options going forward.

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News category: World.

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