By Jonathan Petre, Religion Correspondent
Lay people are to be encouraged to take on huge new responsibilities in the Roman Catholic Church, from running parishes to officiating at church services.
Under proposals drawn up by the Diocese of Westminster, the laity will increasingly assume many of the traditional roles of the parish priest as clergy numbers continue to decline.
In the future, full-time lay ministers could live in clergy houses in parishes where the priest is no longer resident and routinely preside at weekday services using pre-consecrated communion hosts. Lay people have often been regarded as secondary to the clergy and the re-organisation of the country’s “mother” diocese, initiated by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, could result in a sea change.
Traditional Catholics are likely to resist the changes. But Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, who is the Archbishop of Westminster as well as head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, said the Church should encourage “the gifts of all the baptised”.
The paper revealed that the number of priests in the diocese fell from more than 900 in the 1970s to 623 this year. The projected number in 2015 will be 471. Congregations remain strong, however, with about 150,000 Catholics - a third of the total in the diocese - regularly attending Mass.
As a result, the paper said, there were too few clergy for every parish to have a priest in residence, and priests would increasingly look after clusters of parishes with the help of lay people, who would take over a range of tasks.
“As demands on parish priests have increased, there has been greater delegation to lay people of those tasks which have often been (wrongly) assumed to belong exclusively to the ordained priesthood,” it said.