The move by Pope Francis to put two dioceses in the west under the leadership of a single bishop is just the first phase of structural rationalisation in the Church in Ireland, The Irish Catholic understands.
The Pontiff indicated last week that when Bishop of Galway, Kilmacduagh and Kilfenora Brendan Kelly retires shortly, the diocese will be joined with Clonfert, likely under the leadership of the incumbent there, Bishop Michael Duignan.
Officials are at pains to point out that it is not an amalgamation. The Irish Catholic understands that there was huge resistance to formal amalgamation from Irish bishops, so the decision was made to unite the two dioceses instead while both retain their individual identity and separate structures.
The Irish Catholic understands that further consolidation will follow. A source close to the talks indicated to this newspaper that the Vatican was not keen to impose solutions but instead wanted local dioceses to come up with proposals. However, the source also said that Rome’s patience would “not be eternal in the absence of local solutions”.
The source added that amalgamation and the subsequent unifying of structures and resources “was not the top priority”. However, they said that it was likely the most inevitable end in most cases.
“The Holy See wants to be flexible, the Irish bishops know what is best for Ireland but we need fewer dioceses,” the source said.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic, Bishop Duignan said that it is no secret the Church in Ireland “faces many challenges at this time”.
“When it comes to challenges in general, we can either passively let them come our way or with a confidence in the Holy Spirit take a rational proactive approach to them. In life, I have always believed the latter to be the best plan of action,” he said, adding that “it is in this proactive spirit that I welcome the intention of uniting” the two dioceses.
This is not an amalgamation or suppression of either dioceses, he said, describing it as a “mild form of union” that acknowledges the venerable heritages involved, preserves local identity and provides a model of union, “which in my opinion has a very good chance of success”.
Asked whether he believes the process could be mirrored in other parts of Ireland he said he did not know but while it is new to Ireland it has been done in many other parts of the world.
He added: “It will take time to step into that model, to dialogue and discern together in order to sensitively make it work to the benefit of both dioceses. I am sure that many dioceses in similar situations will look at this development with great interest.”