The Archdiocese of Liverpool has become the first diocese in England and Wales to commission lay people to preside at funerals.
Archbishop Patrick Kelly formally commissioned 22 lay ministers to celebrate funeral ceremonies in an effort to relieve pressure on priests who sometimes must celebrate seven or more funeral Masses a week.
The move was announced through a brochure, “Planning a Catholic Funeral”, published recently by the archdiocese. The brochure described a funeral as the “community’s main celebration and prayer for the deceased”.
“This could be a funeral Mass but … it may be a funeral service led by a lay funeral minister or a deacon,” it said.
Vocations in Liverpool declined sharply in recent years, and the archdiocese projected that the number of priests will decline from 170 to 100 by 2015.
Lay ministers already preside at funerals in some parts of the world where no priest or deacon is available. The decision by Archbishop Kelly represents the first time such a step was authorised by the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
The archdiocese’s Council of Priests supported the move after the archbishop consulted with its members and examined the 1990 Order of Christian Funerals.
The document calls for the lay ministers to preside at funerals when clergy are unavailable, Archbishop Kelly explained in an article in the Tablet.
The document, he said, also recommends that a Mass “be celebrated for the deceased at the earliest convenient time”.
“In some of our parishes in the diocese priests are being asked to celebrate over 120 funerals each year,” Archbishop Kelly wrote.
“That does not neatly work out at two or three times a week,” he wrote. “Some weeks there can be six or seven.”
Archbishop Kelly said that the lay ministers – some of whom are drawn from the roster of Eucharistic ministers, catechists and religious sisters – would receive continuing support and training to ensure that the service they provide is “of the best quality” and was not seen by Catholics as “second-class”.