Appointing, Selecting or Electing bishops; We can do better than this.

While Saint Muredach is regarded as the first bishop of Killala diocese, this is only the case in an approximate sense because when St Muredach lived in the sixth century there was no diocese of Killala. Indeed it was centuries later before the diocese was formed when its boundaries were delineated in the Synod of Rathbrazil, which was held in the easily-remembered year of 1111 a.d. (The same is true of St Nathy and Achonry and St Jarlath and Tuam, etc).
After the coming of St Patrick and before Rathbrazil, and the development of the parish system that followed, the early Irish church was monastic. Monasteries, big and small, were dotted around the countryside and were the focal point of religious practice. St Muredach is thought to have come to prominence by introducing monasticism to the barony of Tirawley. In Moygownagh parish, for example, St Daria had a monastery in the townland of Knockaculleen (the hill of the small cell) but no trace of it now remains. Religious life in Moygownagh, in the centuries between the fifth and twelfth centuries, must have centred on the monastery at Knockaculleen.
Gradually, after Rathbrazil, the monastic church was replaced by a diocesan and parish structure that evolved over centuries with the church becoming more and more centralised as Rome gradually exerted more and more control. While there was always a sense that decisions in relation to local matters could be taken at local level, and even though in the Middle Ages Rome seemed a long way away, Roman control over local dioceses gradually became more and more centralised.
An example of this was the procedure for appointing bishops. Before 1829 the selection of bishops followed a secretive process of influence, lobbying and patronage. After 1829 new rules were introduced whereby all parish priests met and selected a list of three candidates. Eventually the process ended up in Rome, when usually, though not always, one of the three was selected as bishop. For instance, Lahardane-man John MacHale came second in the voting in Tuam and was later appointed archbishop and his successor in Killala, Francis O’Finan, came first in the voting in Killala and was later appointed bishop.
It’s interesting that after 1829 the process was much less secretive than it is now. For instance the meeting of priests in Killala diocese after MacHale’s demotion to Tuam was reported in the local papers, including the number of votes each of the three candidates received. Now if a priest is asked for his opinion on a prospective candidate he is bound to absolute secrecy, even to the extent of saying that he was consulted – a requirement, I’d have to say with Hamlet, more honoured in the breach than in the observance.
Now no one at local level really knows by what process an individual bishop is appointed. While there is a process and the scaffolding is clear – consultation at local level, a list of three candidates, discussion among bishops of the province, proposal of Congregation of Bishops (Rome), decision by the Pope, with everything organised by the current Papal Nuncio – the detail is cloaked in secrecy.
While a certain level of secrecy is appropriate, the perception is that an inordinate stress on secrecy has allowed individuals exert undue influence in the whole process.
Take the requirement of ‘consultation’. Consultation, as we know, is a very moveable feast. Church authorities are very quick to reassure everyone that ‘consultation’ takes place in the appointment of every bishop but it depends, of course, on what we mean by ‘consultation’.
Can you consult priests about someone from the other side of the country whom they don’t know and had never heard of? Whatever that process might be designated, it’s difficult (with a straight face) to describe it as ‘consultation’ within the limits of the ordinary usage of the word. One suspects that what Cardinal Connell once famously called ‘mental reservation’ – a form of mental gymnastics, where like Alice in Wonderland ‘words mean what we want then to mean’ – may well be in play here. Whatever you might call the present process, it stretches credulity to describe it as ‘consultation’.
It would seem that decisions about the appointment of bishops in Ireland are now being made using a template that might operate in a different culture but is patently out of sync with the requirements of the Irish Church. If a priest in Elphin is appointed bishop in Kerry and a priest in Limerick is appointed bishop in Waterford and a priest in Dublin is appointed bishop in Elphin, it smacks more of an ecclesiastical version of pass-the-parcel than of allowing the Holy Spirit to get a word in edgeways. Is it any wonder that so many priests have lost confidence in the process of appointing bishops?
The sense at present is that only safe and predictable appointments are made. Those being chosen, generally speaking, are not known for their vision or creativity and there’s a growing sense that ‘the Safe Man’ who will hold the line and is guaranteed to change nothing is not the template needed.
If we were going to look afar for new bishops, a huge choice was available over the years in Irish missionary priests – extraordinary men who built up churches in different cultures and often in hostile surroundings – who brought energy, vision, commitment and creativity to an often impossible task. And yet I can’t think of one appointed from that huge constituency of proven ability and vision who made it to the Irish bench of bishops. Indeed it must be a source of huge frustration for them, as they return home to retire, to find an Irish Church that has effectively blown it in Ireland in the course of a half century.
We can do better than this.

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  1. Bishop kieran o Reilly sma killaloe and Cashel.

  2. Reminds me of the way RIC were assigned: never to your own county or that of your wife (if you had one).
    This was to stop the officers getting too close to the people and to preserve central control.
    Perhaps appropriate in a police force, but in a church of the people?

  3. roydonovan says:

    Thanks to Brendan and the use of the internet in giving voice once again to matters in which we have no effective say and which leave us with the feeling that we don’t count and are of little importance – just pawns in the bigger scheme of things.
    I don’t want to be part of the massive silence around such important matters.
    I offer my vote of ‘no confidence’ in the ‘secretive’ processes of appointing bishops.
    It erodes trust in the Hierarchy. It eradicates diversity and different type leaders like Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. It adds further to the lack of ‘cred’ of the Church. It seems to be about fear and control. It is managment without the prophetic Holy Spirit.

  4. Ned Quinn says:

    I too would support a vote of no confidence. I suggest the ACP poll its members.

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