A game-changer for smaller Catholic dioceses
Western People 30.11.2021
The letter, published a week or so ago, from the Catholic bishops of Galway and Clonfert, is what we call ‘a game-changer’. For some time efforts have been made behind the scenes to try and introduce some balance into the relative size of Irish dioceses, with boundaries unchanged in some instances from the Synod of Rathbrazil in the easily remembered year of 1111– and amended in the Synod of Kells in 1152.
An example of the imbalance is that Clonfert diocese has a population of 36,000 Catholics while Dublin diocese has almost 1.1 million Catholics, a multiple of 30. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that while Dublin is probably too big for one bishop to administer, Clonfert is probably too small. And that a bit of house-keeping is in order.
This housekeeping was tried before, including within the west of Ireland in the last few decades, but the word is that the Catholic bishops of the west made their displeasure felt at that possibility and it was shelved – temporarily. Now, clearly it is being mooted again. However, this time it’s not a vague idea dangled before the western bishops as a possibility to be explored but as an idea whose time has come.
Now, it seems, from the letter mentioned at the top of this piece, Pope Francis has stated that ‘in the near future’ he intends to appoint one bishop between both Galway and Clonfert.
There was a sense of inevitability about this decision. It wasn’t just that the statistical imbalance was crying out for readjustment but that some dioceses because of the escalating decline in priest numbers simply couldn’t sustain the appointment of a bishop.
In Killala diocese, a crunching of priest numbers indicates that within plus-10 years there will be around 10 or so priests – though clearly accuracy is difficult as the variables tend to shift disconcertingly. Clearly, at that point we will have reached a stage when a bishop with less than a dozen clergy is superfluous to need.
But to get back to the game-changing letter. The papal nuncio, the pope’s man in Ireland, has been told by Pope Francis to inform the bishops of Galway and Clonfert of his intention to bring the two dioceses together. The letter goes on to explain that ‘the form of union under one bishop’ envisaged is ‘not an amalgamation and does not suppress either of the two dioceses’.
This is a key point because Rome can learn lessons from the past – when it needs to. While this decision to unite dioceses will, no doubt, become a template, Rome doesn’t want a Cork and Ross scenario to develop. In 1958, the tiny diocese of Ross in the south west of Ireland was subsumed into neighbouring Cork diocese, to the consternation of some Ross priests and people, who carried out a campaign for years
in an effort to reclaim the independence of Ross. The Ross complaint became, for bishops of Cork and for Rome, the equivalent of an irregular migraine.
Having learned that lesson, Rome is now definitively proclaiming that dioceses will be ‘unified’ under the one bishop – not amalgamated and definitely not subsumed.
No diocese, Rome is saying, will be suppressed. Each diocese, Rome is saying, will continue ‘to maintain its own integrity and autonomy but will work ‘closer together, where possible, through the person and ministry of a single bishop’.
So there you have it, a template for ‘uniting’ multiple dioceses under a single bishop.
In the case of Galway and Clonfert, ‘consultations’ will continue, meetings will be held in both dioceses ‘to inform the People of God and talk to them about it’. While it may stretch the meaning of ‘consultations’ more than a bit, retrospective and post-factum though they be, there is an administrative wisdom in not taking the road to Ross.
What this new type of ‘union’ is careful to avoid is any notion of a takeover of one diocese by another. This policy has worked well in ‘uniting’ parishes under a joint PP. As with the ‘union’ of Killala and Lacken parishes, where both parishes retain their independence and autonomy under PP, Michael Harrison, so Galway and Clonfert will retain their independence and autonomy.
Each diocese will retain control over its structures and institutions – churches, offices, officials, councils, buildings, lands, bank accounts, etc – all will be left unchanged in each diocese. Each diocese will keep its own personnel and ‘priests will not normally be asked to minister beyond their own diocese’.
The bishop to be appointed to head both dioceses – presumably Michael Duignan, presently of Clonfert, as Brendan Kelly has submitted his retirement to Rome – will exercise ‘the pastoral governance of both dioceses equally’.
There is every reason to expect that ‘the union of Galway and Clonfert’ will be achieved without much fuss, though no doubt questions will be asked as to where the bishop may live. Galway, as the main centre of the new union, seems the obvious location, though I suspect that the new bishop will maintain a public presence in both dioceses – and the dual carriageway will probably obliterate any question of distance between the two entities.
No doubt the template that the union of Galway and Clonfert represents will soon be dusted off again when the diocese of Killala becomes vacant with the retirement in a few years of Bishop John Fleming. No doubt Rome will look at Achonry or Elphin or both as likely possibilities for another union.
Tongue in cheek, I might surmise that a problem that might arise with Achonry is that, in the event of a union with Killala, the Achonry priests might prefer the opportunity to work in some of the most stunningly beautiful parishes in Ireland, with scenery to die for and gentle Atlantic breezes to enjoy. I would hope that their wishes might be accommodated in the presumptive union.