Brendan Hoban: The job of a modern bishop is not an easy one   

Western People 17.1.2023

Almost 250 years ago, when Dominick Bellew, a native of Co. Louth, arrived in Killala diocese in 1780, he was the first Catholic bishop to live in the diocese for most of a century. Bellew’s appointment to Killala coincided with the first of the Catholic Relief Acts which opened up a series of possibilities undreamt of during Penal times. Just 35 years of age when he came to Killala, Bellew had the energy and conviction to drag his new diocese into what he regarded as a new and changing Ireland.

Some weeks before, hearing rumours that Bellew was in line for the appointment and that he had a reputation as ‘ambitious and unpleasant’, the Killala clergy wrote to Rome outlining their objections. However, by the time the letter reached Rome Bellew was on his way to Brussels where he was consecrated bishop of Killala ‘in a ceremony of great pomp and splendour’. On his arrival in Killala, Bellew met the priests and fears of any awkwardness were soon allayed when the priests had a spectacular change of heart and, in another letter to Rome, spontaneously declared themselves to be very happy with their new bishop.

The main objection to Bellew was that he was an ‘outsider’. In other words, they didn’t know him and didn’t know what to make of him. There was also the question of ‘diocesan pride’ that hid itself under the general rubric of priests wanting ’one of our own’ as bishop.

Despite this when Bellew was killed after his horses bolted at Killucan, near Mullingar (as he made his way home from a bishops’ meeting in Dublin on June 11, 1813) his successor was another outsider, Peter Waldron, a Tuam priest. However, for the next 150 years – from Waldron’s death in 1834 (in his 82nd year, when he fell off a chair trying to wind a great clock) to 1987 – with one exception, all bishops of Killala were natives of the diocese.

That changed with the appointments of Thomas Finnegan in 1987 and John Fleming in 2002 which together represented a clear departure fromVatican policy. Twenty years on no diocese in the west has a bishop native to the diocese and in Ireland generally this pattern has become the almost universal practise in that, by my reckoning, the only bishop now serving in his native diocese is Larry Duffy in Clogher. And the present evolving policy of dragging dioceses to the altar even if the unions are far from consummated would indicate that in the future, bishops (like priests) will become fewer.

With the expected retirement this year of Killala’s bishop, John Fleming, the word on the clerical grapevine is that ‘amalgamations’ – in practice if not in theory – will mean that Killala and Achonry and possibly Elphin (or alternatively, Tuam plus one or more of the above) will become larger administrative units.

This, of course, is speculation but, even with Rome’s customary and relaxed inability to consult those directly involved, it’s all we have to go on. Even more outrageously official contact has been made with some bishops and some priests in the west  – no non-clergy, as usual – and apparently discussions have been entered into regarding possible ‘amalgamations’ with other dioceses including Killala whose bishop and priests (and non-clergy) have not been consulted or even made officially aware of the process. If Rome was trying its upmost to make a pig’s dinner out of what is a delicate diplomatic exercise it couldn’t do it better.

It would seem that bishops or potential bishops, with the ground moving under their feet in a number of different ways, now have to deal with a change of ground-rules. Bishops will be fewer and dioceses will be pushed together with the same alacrity as parishes are at present. Unsurprisingly the numbers (including the declining number of euros in the collection baskets) will dictate policy. If, in 20 years’ time, at a conservative estimate, Killala and Achonry between them will have less than 20 priests, can they afford (in every sense) to have two bishops?

Bishops will also have to become more grounded. Unlike Dominick Bellew, over two centuries ago, who spent over 30 years in Killala trying to escape from (what he called) ‘the marshes of Mayo’, there is no longer any obvious promotions ladder that acts as a domino effect down the line.

A third change is that Catholic bishops are expected (or expect themselves) to struggle as far as their 75th year – a point on life’s journey for most people not far from the outskirts of dotage. Popes can retire early, as the late and great Benedict demonstrated in re-writing history after 600 years and bishops too as recently Robert Byrne, the bishop of Hexham and Newcastle in England, has stepped down at 66, nine years short of the episcopal retirement stage, telling the people of his diocese that the office of bishop had become too great a burden for him. And another bishop in Switzerland has stepped down, citing ‘inner fatigue’. To paraphrase scripture (Book of Wisdom, 4:8) length of years is not what makes a bishop’s term of office effective.

As with modern life, circumstances are conspiring to enforce change. Bishops try to do too much and are expected to have an impossible array of talents. Being a bishop has to be one of the most dispiriting and disheartening of lives and little wonder that the cardinal involved in overseeing bishop’s appointments admitted recently that 30 per cent of those asked to be bishops have declined the offer.

Another small victory for a different way of doing things. A synodal way, perhaps?

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  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    Dialogue and consultation are seen in the Vatican as dispensable luxuries, it seems. Amalgamation or abolition of dioceses can create a lot of bad feeling. It needs to be viewed, as Brendan suggests, in terms of wooing, betrothal, and perhaps ultimately blissful union. The shrinking church should be handled with the tenderest of pastoral care, in prayer and love, not in curt administrative decisions crassly imposed.

  2. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Maybe before Pope Francis goes looking for another Irish bishop, he should think about selecting a new substantive Nuncio for Cabra. Msgr Julian Kabore has been shunted around as Chargé d’Affaires from Korea to Trinidad to the Philippines to Ireland over the past five or six years and, while nobody would object to a second West African nuncio, isn’t Georg Gaenswein hanging around at a bit of a loose end these days, with a fairly pointless archiepiscopal title and pallium? A few years in Dublin might help sort him out.

  3. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Oops! @2. Palliums or pallia only go to metropolitan archbishops. Gaenswein or a Nuncio Archbishop wouldn’t qualify – unless maybe he inherited Benedict’s.

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