FEARS the Catholic church could diminish in the region over the next decade have emerged in a new study.
Leading North East priest Father Paul Zielinski, of the Catholic Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, has warned of potential widespread closures and dwindling clergy cover at Mass attendances, if trends from the last 10 years continue.
The worrying scenario facing deaneries in Newcastle and Hexham were on the agenda at a crucial Bishop’s Council meeting which began last night.
Mass attendances in the diocese have continued to fall, dropping by 13,347 from 52,563 in 2001, to 39,216 in 2009.
Fr Zielinski, head of the deanery covering most of the Tyne Valley, has produced a list of concerning scenarios potentially faced by the church, alongside changes proposed for the other 17 deaneries also on the table at the debate.
The present number of active priests stands at 115 but is likely to fall to 73, warns Fr Zielinski.
He has also raised the prospect of many of the 181 parishes having to be cut back, with churches in the diocese covering Berwick to Teesside closing, priests’ houses being rented out and greater pressure put on retired priests, deacons and ministers to work again.
The consequences of falling Mass figures and the declining number of clergy were being debated at last night’s behind-closed-doors meeting, which is expected to last several days.
Fr Zielinski told The Journal last night: “We face a huge challenge in the future to maintain the current level of the Catholic church. My study appears gloomy but we must face the real problems head-on. The concept of Sunday worship is disappearing. People do not consider that day as a time for rest and reflection any more in our 24/7 culture.
“We are in danger of losing what makes the church a source of immense wellbeing.”
He added: “Whatever happens, the outlook is challenging.
“More than ever before the lay faithful will have to play a bigger role in the day-to-day running of their parishes.
“Parishioners need to know that if they do not support their parish or their priest there are no guarantees they will retain either in future. It’s a case of if you don’t use it you lose it.”
In the first of Fr Zielinski’s worst-case scenarios for the Tyne Valley, just one priest in Hexham would become responsible for Haydon Bridge and Haltwhistle.
The latter parishes could be withdrawn, although the churches would remain open for weekend or monthly Masses.
There would be a monthly Mass at Swinburne. Otterburn church might close and the resident priest could leave Bellingham.
Prudhoe may continue to have a priest, with a continuing specialised diocesan ministry. One option could see monthly Masses being supplied from Prudhoe for Swinburne and Bellingham.
In the second scenario, Haltwhistle, Otterburn and Bellingham parishes would all be amalgamated with Hexham.
The three churches would be closed with Hexham St Mary’s becoming the new parish church.
A retired priest would live at Swinburne and would also supply Mass at Bellingham on a weekly basis.
Haydon Bridge church would remain open with a retired priest resident there, or Haydon Bridge could be amalgamated with Hexham.
Referring to the options, Fr Zielinski said the closure of churches would be an extreme last resort.