Masses have had to be temporarily cancelled in the Coalisland. Ardboe and Clonoe areas because the parishes are running out of priests.
Coalisland Parish has already suspended two Masses because of priests’ sicknesses, and each of the three parishes, which form the St Colman’s Pastoral Area, are now being asked to forgo one Sunday Mass.
Religious services in Stewartstown which include gospel readings and communion are currently being led by lay people during the week.
The three East Tyrone parishes were originally grouped together in an effort to pool resources and provide cover.
Coalisland Parish Priest Fr Paul Byrne has commissioned a review of Mass times to cope with the growing shortage of priests.
“With the sad loss of two priests during the past six weeks, and the significant number of retired clergy over the age of 80, a weekend programme that can be provided by three priests in the area is under consideration”, he said.
“In our own parish, the vacancy created by the death of Fr McCourt means that we will have to look at how we manage our weekly schedules so that the needs of parishioners can be met with the best pastoral care as is necessary.
“The parish pastoral council will consider the way ahead and proposals will be published for discussion and feedback as soon as possible.”
However, Fr Byrne is treating the shortage as an opportunity for greater lay involvement in services.
“In a way, we should have been involving the laity in services all along, but in the past I would say we have been over-priested and there was no need to take these steps.”
The parish priest is attending a national conference in Maynooth in April, which will look at developing the involvement of lay people in church services, and also the restoration of old Irish religious traditions such as the honouring of relics, novenas and devotions to Mary.
“We will be looking at how we can expand the role of lay people and make the system more user-friendly”, he said.
Allowing laity to have a more active role was first initiated by Vatican II in the 1960s. The restructuring of parishes in the Armagh Diocese into pastoral areas by Cardinal Sean Brady also envisaged a greater use of lay people.
With Pope Francis having completed his first year in the papacy the door to modernisation within the church has been fully opened.