Clerical grapevine flourishes as bishops retire
Western people 11th May 2021
A priest-friend remarked the other day that now that Catholics were disappearing from churches and priests were disappearing from parishes, will bishops start disappearing from dioceses? He was reacting to the news that, after reaching his 75th birthday, and in accordance with church protocol, Archbishop Michael Neary had offered his resigned as archbishop of Tuam to the pope.
Already, it is clear that the clerical grapevine is in rude health and ready to build theories (and a few sandcastles) around the unusual coincidence of three senior bishops in the west retiring in the next few years. Michael Neary’s class-mate, Bishop Brendan Kelly of Galway, will be 75 in a week or two, though bishop John Fleming of Killala has a few more years to go.
Rumours, real or invented, abound with a list of predicted episcopal appointments arriving in the post, laying out not just who the likely successors will be, but how an overdue realignment of diocesan responsibilities might occur.
What’s stimulating the debate is that a number of factors have conspired to add a richer mix of ingredients to the bake than heretofore. Foremost among them is that the appointment of bishops has become much less predictable than in the past. Once bishops usually came from the same diocese or if not from a neighbouring diocese.
When Archbishop Joseph Cunnane of Tuam resigned some years ago the received wisdom was that one of four priests would succeed him. The Tuam priests had held a straw poll to establish opinion among the clergy and Frs Enda McDonagh, Tommy Waldron and Colm Kilcoyne were listed as favourites in that order. If it wasn’t going to be one of them, the word was that Joe Cassidy, then bishop of Clonfert might be the dark horse. And so it was.
But now the policy is markedly different. Whereas priests from a neighbouring diocese or even from a province used to be favoured, now priests from anywhere in Ireland can be appointed to any diocese. For instance, take three recent appointments in the dioceses of Dublin, Meath and Cork. In a series of round-robin appointments, a Cork priest was appointed to Meath, a Dublin priest was appointed to Cork, and a Meath priest was appointed to Dublin. Other appointments were a Dublin priest to Elphin (Sligo), a Cashel (Tipperary) man to Kilmore (Cavan) and a Kildare man to Achonry.
What this is saying is that a Tuam priest has probably more of a chance of being appointed a bishop in Ferns (Wexford) than in Tuam.
This new broad canvass of expectation both serves to excite the anonymous and other commentators predicting unexpected winners – an exercise even more unpredictable than Cheltenham but much more interesting – and serves to dampen the expectation of ambitious locals already planning a trip to the celebrated Signor Gammarelli establishment in Rome to be fitted for a purple cassock.
What can be said with some certainty is that the next archbishop of Tuam will NOT be a Tuam priest though, by way of compensation, there may be another episcopal appointment on offer down the road a bit.
Another complicating factor is that the number of dioceses – in the west of Ireland and beyond – seems likely to diminish. If, as at present, Dublin diocese has one bishop for over a million Catholics, it seems a bit unbalanced to have one bishop in Clonfert diocese for less than 40,000 – 4 per cent of Dublin’s population. Thus inevitably the clerical commentariat are predicting an amalgamation of dioceses.
Suggestions include Clonfert being subsumed into Galway or Tuam, probably the former as the latter is already too geographically unwieldy; and Achonry being subsumed into Killala – or should it be the other way around?
While the historian in me would want to leave things as they were for more or less the last thousand years, more realistically I’d have to say that it makes sense. After all, it would be hard to justify having a bishop for 10 priests or less in a diocese, which seems the inevitable (and mathematical) fate of Achonry, Clonfert and Killala in a limited number of years.
Another complicating factor is that bishops are appointed to respond to the expectation of whatever pope is in office. Pope Paul VI wanted ‘pastoral’ bishops. John Paul II wanted priests who were hard-line on doctrinal issues like contraception, women priests. And famously, Francis wants priests ‘to have the smell of the sheep on them’ and to be close to the poor. This change of CV has been dramatic for those who regarded themselves as ‘episcopabile’ (suitable candidates for bishop) and who may had prepared for it assiduously during the pontificate of Pope Benedict but discovered to their unease and inconvenience that with Francis, papal expectations had changed dramatically – not least that a trip to Signor Gramanelli’s establishment seems no longer a happy requirement.
Indeed Pope Francis has been very specific about the kind of bishops he wants to appoint and the optimum qualifications for that office. They include being committed to what the Irish bishops recently described (and committed themselves to) as ‘a synodal pathway’ – reforming the Church to include and involve the people in charting a way forward – as well as leadership on climate change and a robust commitment to the poor.
Francis also knows what he doesn’t want in bishops and, in 2013 at a meeting of papal nuncios – whose job it is to organise the appointment of bishops – he explained that he doesn’t want bishops to be ‘culture warriors’, like the American ultra-conservatives who have brought him such grief.
Hopefully we won’t get any of those in Tuam or Galway but if we do we’ll take tea with them in the knowledge that Francis is on our side.