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Father Paul Abbass says laypeople may be asked to do more in the future. (CBC)

The Roman Catholic diocese of Antigonish, N.S., has created a planning committee to find ways to cope with a rapidly shrinking supply of new priests to carry out its work in the area.

The shortfall of new recruits could see the closing of churches and more duties handed over to laypeople.

Father Paul Abbass, director of pastoral services for the diocese, said the church needs to think about its future. He announced a year-long planning process that could mean consolidating some parishes.

"Do we need all these church foundations in every little village or in the city?" he asked. "The city of Sydney has, I think, 11 churches to supply the Catholic population there. Do you need 11 churches to do that?"

Abbass said the planning committee will also consider whether parishioners can take on more work traditionally done by priests, such as visiting the sick or leading prayer groups.

Aging, shrinking priesthood

In 2007, there were 82 priests in the diocese. Today there are 50 and current trends suggest there will be about 30 in 2021, because the average age of a priest in the diocese today is 61.

Nova Scotia's rural populations are also shrinking, leading to fewer people in the pews. The global pedophilia scandal surrounding the Catholic church has further dampened turnout, including the high-profile Bishop Raymond Lahey affair.

Lahey was Antigonish's bishop in 2009 when he unveiled a $15-million settlement between the church and victims of clerical sexual abuse. He was stopped at the Ottawa airport that year and found to have child pornography on his laptop computer.

He pled guilty May 4 and is due in court for sentencing later this summer.

The church has had to sell many of its properties  to pay for the settlement.

'Right track' for church's future

Pat Bates, a Catholic churchgoer in Sydney, said Abbass's planning was a good move because the church must adapt to survive.

"He's on the right track and I think he's trying to alert people that we have to take these trends seriously," he said.

Abbass said the committee will consult widely throughout the diocese and aims to create a plan within one year.