The experience of Galloway diocese


A parish priest and former rector of Scotus College reflects on the opportunity for a renewed focus on the ministry of all the baptised as the Catholic Church faces up to dramatic decline in Mass attendance and clergy numbers.

In the present climate where our diocesan communities throughout Scotland are looking at the demands and the requirements of pastoral provision in what can only be described as rapidly changing circumstances, the Diocese of Galloway is in the midst of what it is calling the process of ‘Embracing Change.’

This process builds upon a previous pastoral vision called ‘Embracing the Future,’ which presented principles which were considered as nonnegotiable in underpinning all pastoral analysis and decision making as the diocese entered into the 21st century.1

The principles of ‘Embracing the Future’ remain valid, yet the pastoral reality is that what was considered as something vaguely linked to the future has in fact now become the present. What was suitable in the past is no longer sustainable, and so ‘Embracing Change’ means that the diocese must now address some very serious pastoral questions.

Yet from the outset it has been clearly stated that such a process of pastoral discernment is not simply about trying to come to terms with a dramatic decline in the number of active clergy available to minister on a day-to-day basis. Nor is it about simply facing up to the fact that we have too many church buildings and other properties that are no longer required to accommodate the numbers of people attending Mass. Rather, ‘Embracing Change’ is part of a bigger picture that looks at ministry as something that unites both laity and clergy, and that sees the wonderful opportunities available today, especially to the laity, when new situations require creative and collaborative responses. It is about having a mindset of mission, not of maintenance, where the focus is on the proclamation of God’s Kingdom, and where all the baptised are seen as being uniquely and individually called to serve one another in faith.

‘Embracing Change’ is rooted in encouraging all members of the diocesan community to pray about the situation. Only from this foundation can we hope to co-operate with the Holy Spirit in seeking to nurture inspired and imaginative pastoral possibilities. It is by being rooted in prayerful discernment that we can listen to God’s Word as it is directed to us in the midst of our structures and organisations, many of which may have been looked on as essential in the past, but through prayer are now being recognized as secondary,
and no longer required.

From the foundation of prayerful discernment, change can be seen as something to be eagerly grasped, and not something to be feared or avoided. Change will of necessity involve practical decisions, but these decisions must come only as the result of constructive and reasoned dialogue involving as many members of the different parish communities as possible.

The parishes of Galloway Diocese are a mixture of rural communities and sizeable towns, and so different responses are required in different areas. In recent years many parishes have already experienced the value of clustering, where after the initial shock of losing a resident parish priest, there have been benefits from the use of shared local resources, where parishes working together experience a bond which had not been there before. Parishes grouped together highlight the truth that every single parish has gifts and resources, but that no single parish has all the gifts or means required for a vibrant community of faith. Uniting parishes and encouraging lay leadership to emerge has acted to strengthen the local community, and not diminish it, as some may have feared.

The number of laity who in recent years have taken on positions of responsibility and leadership in the diocese is sizable, but this will have to increase significantly if the people are to continue to experience ministry and service. Different areas will need to come up with different scenarios with an assortment of roles for lay team ministers, for deacons and for priests.
Some parishes may flourish in having a parish co-ordinator, others may be team-led, while others may discern that their future is best served by amalgamation or merger. There can be no one size fits all proposal but rather each pastoral area will need to seek solutions to whatever challenges arise. Of course, there will be hurts and disappointments. Not all expectations will be met. Individuals may well have to go through the experience of what they had once considered a vital part of their Catholic identity is no longer accessible.

Yet in all this, the wonderful and vibrant message of the Gospel is close. We have the opportunity to form communities of faith which can directly respond to the needs and demands of today. The desire for a Catholic community where collaboration between laity and clergy is not simply an ideal but a reality is worth the effort. A Church where lay people are empowered to recognise their role in mission originating in their baptism is a Church that surely better reflects the vision of the Gospel.

As Galloway Diocese seeks to ‘Embrace Change’ it does so conscious of the mysterious promptings of the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit has led Pope Francis to assume his role as Bishop of Rome, and so has dramatically brought a prophetic voice to help us address the pastoral questions facing us today. As different communities reflect on how, why and where we must change, our pastoral priorities must emerge somehow in tune with the priorities being enunciated by Pope Francis. This is an enormous challenge, and one that may well mean we have to re-assess positions which we had previously held with certainty. Francis’ pastoral message is clearly a Church of the poor and a Church for the poor. In ‘Embracing Change’ we will have to let this be our main concern.

Fr William McFadden is parish priest of St Andrew’s and St Cuthbert’s, Kirkudbright and adult education co-ordinator for the Diocese of Galloway. He taught Fundamental and Systematic Theology at Scotus College, Scotland’s National Seminary, where he was rector until the college’s closure in 2009.

1 The principles contained in the document ‘Embracing the Future’ can be found on the diocesan website at

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.