Wednesday 17 April 2024

Changes to Mayo's dioceses are a break with 900-plus years of tradition (Opinion)

Last Tuesday (April 9) could be called Simon Harris Day as Dáil Éireann, the media, Fine Gael and others pulled out all the stops to celebrate the political beatification of a new Taoiseach. 

Young, brisk, energetic and a gifted communicator, Harris played a starring role (as new Taoisigh do) in a series of parliamentary and other semi-liturgical set-pieces that mark his huge leap up the political ladder. 

As ever, we witnessed history in the making.

The following day (April 10) was historic in its own way when the Papal Nuncio in Ireland announced that the dioceses of Tuam and Killala, as well as the dioceses of Elphin and Achonry were to merge.

Archbishop Francis Duffy of Tuam will head a new diocese, incorporating Tuam (of which he is already archbishop) and Killala (to which he has been appointed Apostolic Administrator). Bishop Kevin Doran of Elphin will head another new diocese, incorporating Elphin (of which he already is bishop) and Achonry (to which he has been appointed Apostolic Administrator).

This is a huge break, in terms of diocesan boundaries, with a 900-plus years of tradition. From Patrician times until the 12th century, the Irish Church was pre-diocesan and was in large part monastic. 

The diocesan territorial system under the administration of bishops was introduced in the twelfth century in order to bring the structure of the Church in Ireland into line with that of the rest of Europe.

The first delineation of dioceses in Ireland was introduced by the Synod of Rathbrazil in the year 1111AD where tentative boundaries were agreed. Killala was mooted to stretch from Nephin to Ballyshannon and from Blacksod to Ballisodare but this never became a reality. 

In the event, it was left to the Connacht clergy to agree boundaries for themselves and what became Killala diocese was subsequently confined to the territory in which Ui Fiachrach lived – what we know now as the baronies of Tireragh, Tirawley and Erris. 

That delineation of Killala was sanctioned at the Synod of Kells in 1152 and the boundaries have been unchanged for 900 years.

Archbishop Duffy, in a statement, described what he called "this level of change in the episcopate in one province at the same time" as "quite significant". 

He continued: "It creates the possibility of exploring a closer union between the Archdiocese of Tuam and the Diocese of Killala, and between the Dioceses of Elphin and Achonry not unlike the process that is already underway in the Dioceses of Galway and Clonfert. Any such change would involve living communities and could not be simply structural or administrative. It would require careful discernment over some time, involving the whole people of God in the respective Dioceses." 

It’s understandable (and necessary) that Archbishop Duffy would be so tentative in his approach because this initiative is very much a game-changer. It’s breaking new ground and in the process over-turning centuries of tradition. 

Unlike the union between Galway and Clonfert where each of the two dioceses retain their independence under a shared bishop, it was clear in the preceding consultation to the above ‘unions’ that any decision to ‘merge’ dioceses would be of a different order to that of Galway and Clonfert, in other words an amalgamation.

This process will demand much time, will need to be given plenty of space and will require a huge commitment as merging two dioceses is a huge task, covering a whole range of issues, many of which will demand challenging levels of sensitivity and respect for the traditions and heritage of both dioceses.

There’s no accepted template for the union of dioceses and the four dioceses – Tuam, Killala, Elphin and Achonry – will have to negotiate a new path without much guidance or precedence regarding an optimum sequence to be followed. 

Traditions, procedures, approaches vary from diocese to diocese and a mutually respectful, open and a facilitative attitude to problem-solving needs to be accepted as a necessary building block for the resolution of what may emerge as contentious issues.

In a way, the union of Tuam and Killala could be more problematic in that, unlike with Elphin and Achonry, there is a greater disparity in size. 

Tuam has 56 parishes (Killala, 22). Tuam has a population of 145,000 (Killala, 36,000). 

Tuam has 74 priests (Killala, 23). Tuam has 131 churches (Killala, 48). Tuam has 195 primary schools and 18 second-level schools (Killala has correspondingly, 63 and 10).

Individual disparities of practice and tradition will need a mutual and respectful engagement that will include appointments policy in terms of location, the status of the two cathedrals (each at either end of the new diocese), determining the character and location of ritual diocesan occasions like Chrism Masses, priests retreats and other standard realities of diocesan life, agreeing appropriate and acceptable name changes for the new diocese and reconciling any disparity of income that may exist.

There is no reason why such agreements would not be possible given the core values of respect and generosity that underpin our Christian faith. 

The reconfiguration and amalgamation of dioceses is not the equivalent of a company takeover of another company. Fundamentally, this is not so much about down-sizing as about maximising the potential to respond to the primary focus of the Church, the gospel message of Jesus, a reconstruction that adverts to deeper impulses than market forces.

It is also about responding at a personal level to a huge loss of diocesan identify cemented over 900 years of history and lifetimes of individual service and with the personal and institutional sadness that many will grieve. 

It will be, as someone said to me the other day, an orphan experience for many.

Though it’s a done deal, there is a further road to travel in respecting the depths of its implications.