With every one of the twenty-six Irish dioceses having had at least one bishop in the past, the Irish Bishops Conference is set for downsizing – with the pending appointment of just one bishop to administer two adjoining dioceses.
On Tuesday November 16th, 2021 two bishops – the retiring Brendan Kelly of Galway and the younger Michael Duignan of Clonfert – released the joint message that “in the near future” Pope Francis intends to appoint just one bishop to administer both dioceses.
This is not an amalgamation of dioceses, however. Both dioceses will remain separate except for the fact of sharing just one bishop.
It is strongly believed that this will set a pattern for the future – with fewer bishops being appointed, each to administer two or even more dioceses.
For some years, especially since 2010, it has been argued by some senior Irish churchmen, that Ireland is ‘over-bishoped’. It has roughly the same population as the diocese of Los Angeles, USA – but the latter has just six bishops in all, headed by an Archbishop.
Already there is a guessing game as to just how many bishops Ireland will wind up with eventually.
The reason for this ‘downsizing’ is believed to be partly the shrinking pool of ordained Irish clergy and of ‘talent’ overall – but the prospect of a more decisive and cohesive Irish Bishops Conference is also likely to be in play.
The emeritus Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, expressed exasperation with the ICBC in 2019, by asking publicly what had happened to a crucial projected reform of catechesis in Ireland in 2011 that never came ‘on stream’ (Share the Good News). It has also been reported that the ICBC is divided on issues of reform – for example on where and how the training of seminarians should happen, and whether marriage should be a disqualifying factor for ordination.
With a ‘flock’ of well over one million it is easy to see how an archbishop of Dublin might welcome ‘downsizing of the ICBC, and could become exasperated to be outvoted by just two or three of the smallest dioceses, with far less than half that number between them.
Fewer bishops should mean shorter and fewer meetings of the ICBC, quicker decisions and more rapid reform in the wake of the ‘synodal pathway’, but just how few would be too few? That’s anyone’s guess at present.