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.