Ireland needs ‘creative wingers’ for bishops – as well as ‘dependable centre-backs’

Bishops are a bit like Dublin buses. You wait for ages for one to come along and suddenly three arrive together. Almost every week now a new bishop is appointed to a diocese, sometimes after a wait of as long as three years.
Quite apart from any dramatic decision that might emerge from the new dispensation in Rome, changes in personnel in the leadership of the Irish Church were expected anyway. Until the recent splurge of appointments twenty-three of Ireland’s Catholic bishops were over 65 years of age; fifteen were over 70 and six Irish dioceses were vacant. Indeed if Catholic bishops retired at 65, as do their Anglican counterparts, only 4 Catholic dioceses in Ireland would have had their present bishop.
What’s remarkable about the recent series of appointments is that almost invariably the new bishops have come, as we used to say about Pope John Paul II, ‘from a far country’.
The new bishop of Kildare is from Meath; the new bishop of Cloyne is from Kerry; the new bishop of Kerry is from Roscommon; the new archbishop of Armagh (in waiting) is from Derry and so on. The pattern is quite clear. It’s as if the Vatican has suddenly discovered an ecclesiastical version of Irish musical chairs.
Once it was regarded as an embarrassment if a diocese wasn’t ‘able to produce a bishop’ for itself. Almost two hundred years ago, Archbishop John MacHale of Tuam was mocked because he couldn’t find a bishop to succeed him in his native diocese of Killala. In more recent years when Bishop Thomas Finnegan arrived in Killala from his native Elphin in 1987, one of the most senior priests of the dioceses was upset, simply because the new bishop wasn’t a priest of the diocese.
How times have changed since then. By my estimate, less than ten dioceses have native-born bishops at present and most of these are coming up to retirement age. Give it ten years or so and it would seem no priest will be a bishop in his own diocese.
As the Irish Times might ponderously say, the question is Why? It’s been the case in America, of course, for years. A priest in New York was wont to suddenly find himself a bishop in Kentucky. A priest in California could end up as a bishop in Boston. Moving bishops around the vast chessboard of dioceses has become the norm in America. And now it seems in Ireland.
While policy emanating from Rome can often be impenetrable to ordinary mortals, it appears that the fresh approach of an outsider could be more susceptible to whatever new wheeze Rome has decided is necessary for the Irish Church.
At present there’s a lot of talk about the ‘new evangelisation’ and ‘communion’ and until Pope Francis arrived, a circling of the wagons. We were going to become a more authentically Catholic Catholic Church, even if it meant that we would become smaller and smaller. So, the wisdom appears to be, a new bishop from a far country can implement policy in a way a local might find difficult to do.
Well, yes and no. This theory is based on the false principle that priests need their bishop more than a bishop needs his priests. Once that might have been the case, but not anymore. Unless a bishop brings his priests with him, he’s on his own – regardless of what Rome is whispering into his ear. It is instructive that in the Holy Land a shepherd walks ahead and the sheep follow. In Ireland we have dogs snapping at the heels of sheep to put some manners on them. In the circumstances it is not an inappropriate metaphor.
Of course, in many ways an outside bishop can bring new life and energy to a diocese. I’ve seen it happen twice in Killala diocese in my time, after a long Siberia of ultra-careful native bishops from 1911-87, when energy and life seemed to drain away from the diocese. It was a time when yesterday always seemed to be better.
Another benefit of an outside bishop is that he’s not part of any clique (or presumed clique) so every decision he makes is not pushed through the sieve of presumed favouritism.
As against that a native bishop already knows his priests and his diocese and he doesn’t need a ‘getting-to-know-period’ to find his way among the complex of personalities, motivations and abilities of priests and people, as well as finding his way literally around the geography of a diocese. An outside bishop can end up isolated from his priests and people, unless he has the ability to communicate effectively with them.
I have two reservations about this new policy. One is that the present cadre of bishops being appointed seems to come from a very narrow template: someone in their Fifties who studied in Rome and is regarded as a ‘safe pair of hands’. In present circumstances we need a wider base. Some bishops need to be drawn from a different template. (Like not having any connection with Rome and not regarded as ‘a safe pair of hands’. The recent history of the Catholic Church in Ireland would indicate the value of a more oblique approach. We need creative wingers as well as dependable centre-backs.
Another reservation is that a group of bishops appointed in their early Fifties will serve for a quarter of a century. Fine if they are effective leaders. Disastrous if they are ineffective. Twenty-five years in the same diocese is too long. History tells us that long episcopates (John MacHale, John Charles McQuaid, etc) like long pontificates generally serve the Church badly.
Anyway, the best of luck to those who are becoming bishops at present. It’s an unenviable task and few would want to face it. Bishops today need a range of qualities: creativity, imagination, an ability to approach reality at an oblique angle, a prophetic disposition, an independent mind, an ability to connect with the rhythms of our times.
That’s a lot to expect but I’d be happy enough if they would take on board one grim truth: they don’t know it all. It might seem obvious but creeping infallibility is a virus that can effect church people in positions of authority and bishops are notoriously prone to it.

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  1. Eddie Finnegan says:

    It seems to me to be no coincidence or accident that the one bishop who feels comfortable enough to sit regularly among his co-diocesan members of the Association of Catholic Priests is not a man “from a far country” but a “son of the soil”. I mean, of course, Liam McDaid of Clogher. Nevertheless,there can be problems in placing too much of a premium on getting a son of the soil, as we see in several dioceses in different countries of West Africa, including over the past 18 months my own old home from home, Sierra Leone.
    Naturally those of us from the Primatial See (not that mediaeval Viking-Norman monstrosity south of Drogheda)who can truly claim to be sons and daughters of Macha bring our son-of-the-soil pietas to something of an acme of perfection. After Armagh native Maelmhaedhoc Ó Morgair handed back the county jersey after a mere four years, we had to wait 842 years for his proper replacement, Tomás Ó Fiaich. Then Tom, too, went off and died on us in France. No justice in this world, but we’re a patient lot in Armagh so what’s another thousand years here or there?
    Meanwhile, though I wouldn’t look forward in rapture to 23 years of Eamon Martin, still I suppose Derry were overdue for a crack at this game the country insists on playing on Macha’s Height or Sandy Hill’s Ara Coeli.
    Cast your mind back to July 1669 when Propaganda Fide parachuted a Meath man in on us. After Oliver Plunkett we were landed with a Clogher man, then another Clogher man, and another, and another (a Maguire and 3 MacMahons), then a Kilmore man masquerading as a Derryman (O’Reilly), then Blake of Tuam/Galway, followed by a Kildare O’Reilly, replaced by Wellington’s Peninsular War spymaster, Salamanca Curtis, then young Kelly from Dromore soon giving way to Down & Connor’s Crolly – whipped by famine fever and replaced (God between us and all harm!) by Kildare Roman Cullen who within two years skedaddled to Dublin; and then we got a Coalisland man, Joe Dixon, and ever so briefly Michael Kieran of Dundalk (OK, both “Armagh” at a stretch, but not real Armagh); and suddenly Donegal decided to play on our pitch: three consecutive Raphoe men – McGettigan, Logue, O’Donnell – and now red hats began to be two a penny; MacRory – “Armaghman” from Ballygawley, a contradiction in terms – and then, would you credit it? the West wants another chance at it just when we had begun to forget about Blake two centuries earlier; but D’Alton of Claremorris was alright for a Mayoman and a good neighbour of ours for six years, with a garden of lettuce and scallions and apple trees that were great for raiding; Conway of D & C, but with a mother from Carlingford I suppose he had some sort of squatting rights; and after Tomás wee Cahal finally snuck in from D & C before Seán paraglided in from Rome via a couple of months in Kilmore’s ‘holding’ parish. So what’d be the point of my picketing Eamon Martin’s installation, even if he strikes me as being from the same stable as our fellow here in Westminster, Vince Nicholls?
    Yes, as Mary Vallely can tell you, we’re well used to long series of wandering spealpín bishops from far countries trying it on with the innocent peasants of Armagh. I’ll tell you what, I know a shovel-ready bishop down in Sierra Leone, Henry Aruna, who’s kicking his heels around the parishes of Freetown because he hasn’t been able to take possession of his diocese, Makeni, for the past eighteen months because the priests and laity weren’t consulted and they have no shortage of sons of Makeni soil lined up for the job. So they told the Bishops’ Conference ‘No!’ and the Apostolic Nuncio ‘No!!’ and Benedict ‘NO!!!’. They don’t hang about in Makeni waiting for advice from Swiss abbots on how to choose their bishop. That won’t be the end of it, of course, once Rome gets its new Curia sorted. Meanwhile Derry’s clearly in need of a shepherd from a far country who won’t be in the mood for taking NO for a welcome a second time. So maybe I’ll have a word with Henry Aruna and we could have him installed in Derry within the month.

  2. Perhaps the Vatican is taking a leaf out of the RIC’s book. You were never posted to your own county.
    If it is so, there might be some little encouragement from this source. The RIC recruited only single men, but once they had served seven years in the force, and not a day before, they could then marry.
    I wouldn’t hold my breath, though.

  3. iggy o donovan says:

    Brendan there is hope yet. I “am in my fifties and studied in Rome”
    Iggy O Donovan

  4. I thought some of the new bishops were chosen because, among other things, they had shown pastoral flair and creativity, even pastoral savvy? Qualites sorely needed. A bishop needs his priests with him but does he not also need his diocesan layfaithful? Gathering them together around the episopal table might offer some hope for a way forward.

  5. Stephen Edward says:

    …. and prayerful and holy?

  6. I wish someone would conduct a poll among Irish Catholics on the current authority status of Irish Catholic bishops generally. Indeed the bishops themselves should sponsor such a poll – to measure the impact of over two decades of scandal as well as events such as the imposition by some Vatican illiterate of a turgid new missal without any input from them.
    For me their lost authority will never be recovered until they make themselves accountable to their people – as recommended by Charles Scicluna before he was made a bishop himself – and lose their paranoid aversion to assemblies of the faithful that allow honest questioning. This would require them to show also courageous opposition to Vatican micromanagement and strong support for the principle of subsidiarity in church governance.
    There are some signs of German bishops showing courage – but I will not be impressed by Irish bishops until they start doing the same. It surely isn’t impressive to see our lot all currently waiting for Pope Francis to tell them what to think about Vatican II and structural reform.

  7. (Sean @6) I believe there are German bishops who are sympathetic to the cause of reform, and that is probably why they have the attention of the Vatican. Yes, if there are bishops who are at all supportive of the reform initiatives, it wouldn’t be, like trying to drill concrete walls. Does it really need to be that way? Other than the German group, and their renewal initiative, no other group appears to make a difference to Rome.
    While Hans Kung has told the Church to keep pressure coming from the grassroots, from the bottom, it seems, that we need to have a united effort, which means, representatives from reform groups, the world over, need to somehow come together, and as well, we probably need to provide “weight” for the efforts of the German Church Reform.
    I have struggled today to “breathe” I think, under the weight of knowing that we, the people, who want the full implementation of Vatican II, and I don’t know how else to say that, are not seen as having anything to say, that maybe, actually comes from the spirit groaning within, trying to give birth to new life, in the Church. I think, total rejection is far easier, that being dismissedsays to me, ‘you can be here, but you are irrelevant and have no power’.
    Yves Congar wrote: “I realized once again to what an extent the Catholic Churc is Latin, to what extent she deceives herself, in good faith, by believing herself to be ‘Catholic’. She is nothing of the sort. Romanism, Italianism, Latinism, scholaticism, the analytical spirit, have swallowed up everything and have almost established themselves as dogma.’
    You can add clericalism….

  8. If the principle advocated here were adopted, we would never have a Pope who was appointed outside the diocese of Rome. In an era of unprecedented migration across the world, in which many Catholics may live in several dioceses throughout their lives, such parochialism would be baneful indeed, inclined towards cronyism and inaction.

  9. Interesting title you have here…”wingers”, “center-backs”….maybe a woman could be quarter-back?….Are you available? Nuala, Mary V, Mary J, Philomena, etc, etc, If you can’t play quarter-back with the bishops, maybe you could give a homily? Maybe, words, are all we have too! But I doubt it!
    In all seriousness now, I welcome more from the clergy, but I also believe, I guess, after being a teacher, that over time, and in the right time, people will speak! Really, when I think, about it, it was the words and life of Father Brian D’Arcy that had me laughing, crying, and praying! One does wonder, how many more powerful stories are out there!

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