In opting for a softly-softly approach to diocesan reform, Rome may simply be delaying the inevitable, but has to start somewhere, writes Michael Kelly
The old saying goes that ‘you can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time – but you can’t please all of the people all of the time’. It is true, of course, and politicians and Churchmen who try often end up pleasing no-one.
The Vatican has taken the first tentative steps in the long-talked-about reform of Irish diocesan structures which have been acknowledged by almost everyone to be in need of a radical shake-up for many years.
A carefully-drafted statement from the Diocese of Galway, Kilmacduagh and Kilfenora and the neighbouring Diocese of Clonfert noted tersely: “We have been informed by the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo, that in the near future the Holy Father Pope Francis intends to appoint a single bishop” to run both ecclesiastical territories.
It was quick to point out that the “form of union of two dioceses under one bishop is not an amalgamation and does not suppress either of the two dioceses.
“Both dioceses will continue to maintain their own integrity and autonomy as is but will work closer together, where possible, through the person and ministry of a single bishop,” the statement added.
A Roman solution to the fact that Irish bishops have, for decades, resisted any reform of the dioceses and subsequent loss of their influence? Perhaps. But it is also more-likely a stop-gap and an acknowledgement by Rome that amalgamation – at this point – might cause unnecessary annoyance among clergy where certain dioceses might be seen to be supressed.
However, few people I have spoken to in ecclesiastical circles see this as anything other than an amalgamation in almost everything but name. And it seems obvious that this is only the beginning.
In an interview with this newspaper two years ago, the papal nuncio signalled that consolidation was well underway. “The process of amalgamation has already started,” he told The Irish Catholic in December 2019.
Following the high-profile 2010-2012 Vatican investigation of the Church in Ireland, one of the themes that emerged was a strong desire from many people to reduce the number of dioceses from 26 to as few as a dozen to streamline bureaucracy and reduce red tape.
It was felt that a leaner structure would make the Church more fit for mission in an increasingly secularised Ireland. However, it is understood that some senior bishops deeply oppose the move, opting instead for the status quo.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic, Archbishop Okolo said in 2019: “All I can say is that the process of amalgamation has already started”.
“It will be slow and steady – to avoid hurts, shocks, and surprises. Everyone implicated in the matter will be involved. The people will effect the amalgamation, work out the details of the cohesion, and inform the Holy See,” he said.
Dr Okolo was adamant at the time that Rome wants the process to proceed from local consultations rather than imposing a top-down solution. He also said that the Holy See is conscious of the local sensitivities.
“I want to be discreet about it, in order not to go ahead. Because if I say it has begun, and the people will say, ‘but we don’t know about it.’ Yes, it has begun.
“The amalgamation begins from the grassroots. The communities, the meetings. In all the dioceses today, there are consultations going on…some don’t want to hear it,” he said.
Clergy and parishioners in both Galway, Kilmacduagh and Kilfenora and in Clonfert will continue to be part of the conversation. But, what is clear is that they will soon be governed by one bishop – in persona episcopi. Since Bishop Brendan Kelly has already passed the mandatory retirement age of 75, it is likely to be Michael Duignan (51) who will become the new – take a deep breath – Bishop of Galway, Kilmacduagh, Kilfenora and Clonfert.
In the new arrangement, the diocesan structures, institutions and resources of each of the respective dioceses are left unaltered. The only change – for now at least – is that instead of each diocese having its own respective bishop, one sole bishop exercises the pastoral governance of both dioceses equally.
Each diocese maintains its own identity and priests will not normally be asked to minister beyond their own diocese. This was seen as crucial in getting ‘buy in’ from clergy in particular. In my experience, distinct diocesan loyalty is rarely felt among laypeople. It is more a feature of clerical culture often fostered in the diocesan boarding school system and bolstered by friendly inter-diocesan rivalries in Maynooth. Most parishioners have a great sense of parish, but the wider loyalty is to a county – partly as a feature of GAA structures.
But, is there wisdom in stopping short of full amalgamation? If the point is to consolidate resources and avoid duplication, surely this compromise does exactly the opposite and instead maintains an illusion that nothing either has changed or has to change to meet a new reality and that the status quo – albeit with a few less bishops – is sustainable?
At the same time, Rome has always proven adept at adopting a piano piano (softly, softly) approach to reform when there is resistance. Reflecting on 2,000 years of Church history gives one perspective, I suppose. As far back as 2011, this newspaper reported that Irish bishops had reacted badly to Rome’s suggestions at downsizing, even if a commission to investigate the matter was eventually established. If outright amalgamation was going to cause upset, a gradual process might be in everyone’s interest. After all, when the number of dioceses in Italy was reduced by 100 in 1986 it was done so on a rolling basis.
So, what might the future hold for the other parts of the Church in Ireland? Well, Dromore Diocese has been without a bishop for almost four years and seems likely it will remain a part of Armagh under Archbishop Eamon Martin – even if not formally amalgamated. The same may be true for Ossory where the Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin Denis Nulty has been presiding as apostolic administrator for almost a year.
If anything, Dublin Diocese is probably too large, but others that could see themselves working under one bishop in the future might be Derry and Raphoe when Bishop Donal McKeown retires in a little over three years’ time. Clogher and Kilmore would seem like a natural fit while Tuam could see Killala and Achonry added. Elphin would seem like a natural home for the now vacant Ardagh and Clonmacnoise. In these circumstances, it would be hard to see Co. Cork sustaining two bishops bringing Cork & Ross and Cloyne together while Kerry would seem like a natural fit for Limerick and, perhaps, also Killaloe. In the South East, a bringing together of Ferns, Waterford & Lismore and Cashel & Emly would form a manageable population.
All of this remains speculation, of course. But if Rome is serious about rationalisation, it will happen sooner rather than later. Some will inevitably think it too radical, others not radical enough. The bottom line is that if the Church is to be fit for mission, it must be leaner and part of that is working closer together.