A PASSIONATE appeal by a West Belfast priest for parents to pay for their babies' baptisms was made to "provoke his congregation to reflect on how they currently are involved" in parish life – a Church spokesperson says.

Fr Martin Magill, Parish Priest of St John's Parish on the Falls Road, made the eyebrow-raising address during last Saturday evening's vigil Mass. It came a week before a 'census of Mass attendance' will be taken this weekend as part of the Pathways to the Future programme by the Diocese of Down and Connor, which will form the basis of restructuring of parish life over the next 20 years.

In one part of the homily, Fr Magill addressed parents who bring their children to baptism but do not make a financial donation for the service.

"There is another group of people I want to speak to via the webcam. That’s you, the parents who bring your children for baptism – we certainly welcome you," said Fr Magill. "Some of you leave a donation which goes to parish funds and some of you don’t. This is not about paying Father [Magill]. 

"I suspect the hotel or restaurant you go to afterwards might have something to say if the bill is not paid.

"We are able to offer St John’s because people here who give week after week to keep this place open. Think about this – you are taking advantage of other people’s generosity. That’s not fair! 

"When I am talking to you – when you bring your children for baptism you take on the responsibility to pass on the faith to them. Simply sending them to a Catholic school and the next time you turn up is for their First Confession isn’t meeting that responsibility. At some stage we need to talk about cheap grace.

"Have a look at First Communion – we had three classes here on a Sunday – how many of you have been back since? 

"I have heard afterwards some parents or some of those who were here used the word 'disgrace' when we took up the parish collections. Let me say if we didn’t take up those collections there wouldn’t be a St John’s Church for you to attend for First Holy Communion. 

"This is the time to waken up and smell the coffee."

Earlier in the homily, Fr Magill said it was "not fair" on the same volunteers within the parish who share duties between them, including Night Prayer, which is held every Thursday evening.

Fr Magill told parishioners that last Thursday, they came "very close" to no Night Prayer due to not enough volunteers. Night Prayer did however go ahead after two additional volunteers came forward.

"That experience of Night Prayer got me thinking about our volunteers and how we need to share out the responsibility of volunteering," explained Fr Magill. "This weekend throughout Down and Connor we are going to hear about the launch of Pathways to the Future through all the parishes as we all are asked to consider the planning needing as we move into the future.  

"We need to do a lot of thinking – we also need to be open to change. We can’t keep doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. We will need new people to become involved in parish life.

PARISH PRIST: Fr Martin Magill

PARISH PRIST: Fr Martin Magill

"There are several people in this congregation who are very generous with their time, talent and treasure. I can’t say that is the case for everyone here.  

"It is becoming more and more difficult to keep the parish going on the people who volunteer at the moment. There is more and more being asked of those who already volunteer – that’s not fair. 

"The purpose of this homily is to stimulate thinking in the Pathways to the Future. We are going to need everyone to be involved and not just the few – that’s not fair! 

"So if you come to Mass every week or every day and are not involved I suggest you have some thinking to do!  When was the last time you asked if I could be involved?

"I want to turn to look at the webcam at the moment, for those of you who are watching this, maybe having a cup of tea in a comfortable chair. I also suggest you need to do some thinking. 

"This also applies to those who choose to watch Mass online when they are perfectly capable of coming here to the church. We need welcomers, we need cleaners, collectors, hospitality – that list goes on and on. Hitting the like button and asking for prayer is not going to sustain St John’s Parish."

The exchange, which was posted on social media was met by hundreds of comments, both in support and against 

One person said: "It is a disgrace that you are trying to shame people into giving money,

"I understand it’s needed to do certain things however as a Catholic growing up in West Belfast it was always an unwritten rule when in Mass or while attending a ceremony you always donate what you can.

"Now unfortunately there is more people that can’t afford to do this than can and it’s unjust and unfair that a man representing God as well as one of – if not the richest churches in the world.

Another in support of Fr Magill said: "Well said Fr Magill, I agree totally with you.

"People don't realise how much it costs to run a church, to keep it beautiful to keep it warm and bright etc and how many people find solace and comfort in God's house but maybe don't realise the lists of running costs you have."

A spokesperson for Down and Connor said: "The purpose of Fr Magill’s homily was to identify and highlight some of the emergent challenges faced in this particular parish principally around volunteering.

"Fr Magill also sought to provoke his congregation to reflect on how they currently are involved and how they might further support the pastoral life of St John’s Parish community, again particularly through voluntary engagement within the parish community."