Fr Bernard Cotter reflects on the challenges Cork & Ross faces
Bishop John Buckley became Bishop of Cork & Ross in February 1998. For over 20 years he has been a shepherd to people in need of care in his diocese. Very few people who spent more than a few days in any Cork hospital were denied a visit from the bishop, who has spent most of his evenings in Cork’s various hospitals: Cork University, Bon Secours, Mercy University, South Infirmary Victoria or the Mater Private Hospital. Between hospital visits and attendance at removals and funerals, our retiring bishop has been a hands-on pastor to his people, and a ‘hard act to follow’ for his successor.
Priests in parishes are very aware of the bishop’s enormous energy for the sick and bereaved. Often when we would eventually hear the news of the illness of a parishioner and make the trip to their bedside to see them, we would receive the news that “the bishop was here already” (with the subtext “what were you doing that it took you so long to get here?”).
Priests in parishes have less public tasks to do. Meetings have to be attended to, buildings maintained, school boards assisted, but this hidden work never gets the same gratitude as a visit to a hospital bed. So, you can imagine how well-thought of Bishop Buckley is among Cork people generally.
Pastoral work, important as it is, is not the full story of the life of a diocese. In 1998, Cork & Ross had a diocesan mission in South America. It had a monthly diocesan magazine, The Fold. It was involved in youth, family and emigrant ministry. It had its own marriage counselling centre where pre-marriage courses were provided. None of these enterprises have survived.
A strategy for dealing with changing times flowered for a while, but swiftly faded. Our incoming bishop has a ‘clean sheet’ on which to write his plans. His interest in engaging with young people is a welcome stimulant to pastoral action, but it will be tested in diocesan life.
Unfortunately, the personnel to implement future plans has severely diminished. If the retiring bishop had 150 clergy in the diocese, we have fewer than half that number now, and we are older, more prone to sickness and weariness. Meanwhile the number of parishes has stayed the same at 68, though the populations of those requesting church services has grown, even as weekly attendance has fallen.
In addition to declining numbers of clergy, the numbers of Religious Sisters who are active in the life of the diocese has declined drastically. In 1998, West Cork had at least eight convents, now it has only two; soon it will have none. The loss of the often unseen voluntary work of sisters in parish life has had a dramatic impact everywhere.
Cork & Ross has not been spared the crises affecting the whole Irish Church. The scandals of abuse by clergy affected our presbyterate too, as did the cover-ups reported in almost every diocese.
Institutional abuse was widely reported from places where people with special needs were housed, and more recently from the city’s mother-and-baby homes. Every instance of abuse has had an impact on those who try to believe, as well as on peoples’ opinions of our leaders in faith.
The moral authority to preach once invested in bishops has vanished and the commitment to faith among all believers has weakened. Most priests in parishes would report a fall-off in weekend Mass attendance, which some would say seems to have become more pronounced since the ill-fated 2018 papal visit.
The future direction of the Catholic schools, and the provision of non-religious education for children in rural areas, will pose a great challenge to all schools as time goes on”.
Nevertheless, despite this weakening, some church events continue to be attractive to all. In particular, events associated with death attract large numbers of people, demanding a compassionate pastoral response.
Funerals and associated rituals bring very many people to church: in fact every Sunday on which an anniversary is marked at a Sunday Mass, a noticeably larger attendance appears than at others.
If people’s interest in death and funerals shows no sign of waning, the number of clergy available to preside is reducing rapidly. Funeral directors report that the people with the least involvement in church life demand the most.
Pastoral teams for funerals have been introduced as a response, whose members not only accompany a family at the time of a death but can co-preside or even preside at some of the rites. This is an idea whose time clearly has come — in fact it has proved so attractive that many other Munster dioceses are inviting the help of those involved in forming such teams in Cork & Ross to share insights.
In Cork & Ross, as elsewhere, the reception of the Sacraments of First Communion and Confirmation proves an enormous challenge. Parents who have had little to do with their local parish since the baptism of their offspring seem poorly placed to pass Faith on, and often wish that entire burden to fall on the school.
Non-practicing teachers feel abused by this system, and advocate a greater role for parents in passing faith on to their own children, as do many other fair-minded Catholics. As in many dioceses, parishes in Cork are ill-equipped and ill-prepared to take on the catechesis of all school-going children, if that becomes necessary whenever schools declare they can no longer bear the burden.
Catholics continue to give their time and talent to managing national schools, at no charge to the State, but they are aware that this voluntary contribution contributes little to the ethos of the school, which seems entirely at the behest of the State.
The future direction of the Catholic schools, and the provision of non-religious education for children in rural areas, will pose a great challenge to all schools as time goes on.
Challenges for the new bishop
This article sketches some of the challenges facing our new bishop. He will have to decide whether to continue the pastoral initiatives undertaken by Bishop Buckley in hospitals and at times of bereavement, or he may choose to invite the retiring bishop to maintain these pastoral contacts.
Bishop Fintan will have to devise a strategy for coping with declining numbers of clergy: will he seek to rationalise Masses and amalgamate parishes, or employ lay pastoral workers and/or catechists, or seek vocations from elsewhere, as other dioceses have done, with varying results?
If a commitment to youth ministry is maintained, how will this be resourced and managed?
How will he set about strengthening faith, in homes, schools and parishes?
God alone knows the answers to these questions, but our prayers will surely help our new bishop find the way.
Fr Bernard Cotter PP Newcestown is a priest of the Diocese of Cork & Ross.