CONGREGATIONS in one of Scotland’s biggest Catholic heartlands have been warned that parishes will need to be closed amid dwindling attendances and falling numbers of priests.

In the biggest overhaul in generations, worshippers across Lanarkshire have been told that parishes are to merge and be renamed.

To help the break with the past, fresh clergy will also be appointed.

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Joe Toal, Bishop of Motherwell, Scotland’s second biggest Catholic diocese, said there was “obviously some pain in the proposals” but said clergy numbers were almost half that of 15 years ago, with a significant proportion over 70 years old.

He said the pressures on priests already serving two parishes meant it was increasingly difficult to visit the sick and dying in their pastoral role.

At the same time , he said there were “too many masses being celebrated for smaller congregations”.

The Archdiocese of Glasgow, the country’s biggest Catholic congregation, announced two-and-a-half years ago that it was facing the need to shut as many as half its parishes.

Meanwhile, across the east of the country, the Church has been planning a major restructure in the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, by cutting the number of parishes from more than 100 to 30.

But sources have said Bishop Toal has “grasped the bull by the horns” while his counterparts in the two biggest cities were guilty of “pussyfooting around” the issue.

One said: “All credit to Joe Toal.

"This is a pretty stark message but he’s put it out there.

"They’ve been talking for years about it in Glasgow without much movement.”

Another said: “It leaves congregations clear as to what the picture is instead of the uncertainty some are complaining about elsewhere.”

In a highly unusual move Bishop Toal issued a video message to all parishes across his diocese at the weekend.

He said that while there were 100 priests in 2000 this had dropped to 60, of whom 11 are 70-years-of-age or over.

While there had been several priests joining from overseas it was “it was unlikely that we will have sufficient priests to maintain the present provision in our parishes”.

He added: “As part of the strategy for the diocese we have already begun planning to amalgamate some parishes, forming one new parish from two or three of our present ones.

"Where possible I will try to maintain our present churches but the provision of masses and other services must be planned, based on the needs of the newly formed parish.

“To celebrate the new parish I propose to choose a new name for the new parish while keeping the dedication of the present churches.

"I consider it would be appropriate also to pass the charge of the new parish to a new parish priest, if possible.”

He added: “It will be important to set out a timeline in which the planned amalgamation will need to take place.

"We have already started the process in a small number of parishes.

"Your parish may become one of the new amalgamated parishes across the diocese.

“There is obviously some pain in the proposals I am making.

"I know how loyal and dedicated many of you are to your own parish and are very attached to what you have.

"It is increasingly difficult however to maintain the current position.”

He also said: “As bishop, it is important for me to care for the clergy of the diocese. My proposal to reduce the number of parishes will assist the clergy to cope with the added workload they face. I ask you to work with me and the diocese in bringing about these necessary changes."