After a gap of more than two years, the Holy See has finally begun filling some of the episcopal vacancies in the Irish Church.
rumoured plans to reduce the number of dioceses seem to have been
shelved for the time being, and in fairly quick succession we’ve had
announcements of appointments to Cloyne, Limerick and Armagh.
William Crean has already been ordained for Cloyne, with ordinations
scheduled for Limerick and Armagh later in the spring.
certain sense of hope about these appointments – a touch of springtime.
That hope is independent of the personalities of the men themselves.
can’t predict what particular style each of these new bishops will have,
but the very fact that some appointments have at last been made is
itself a sign of energy and life.
Why so? It certainly isn’t the case
that the Church is all about the hierarchy.
The concept of the Church
as the People of God has been one of the most significant developments
in our understanding of the Church in recent decades and many of us get
irritated when commentators speak of ‘the Church’ when they mean the
The rest of us matter too.
It’s not that bishops are all
endowed with the gifts of perfect wisdom either.
The briefest look at
our history will prove that untrue.
Neither is it the case that we need
bishops to make things run smoothly.
All vacant dioceses have Diocesan
Administrators who are well able to keep the wheels of the organisation
Indeed, Msgr Eamon Martin has been administrator of the Diocese
of Derry for over a year now. He didn’t need the rich and elaborate
rite of episcopal ordination to be able to fulfil that role.
then will be different after he has received ordination as bishop?
is different after a new bishop is ordained is that the diocese becomes
more fully what it is called to be – the manifestation of the People of
God in a particular place – a local Church.
As the Apostolic Nuncio
reminded the congregation in Cobh during the ordination of Bishop Crean:
“A diocese, like the Diocese of Cloyne, is not just any gathering of
Christians; a diocese is a group of Christians, but it can be called a
local Church because of the presence of a bishop. That is why it is a
day of immeasurable joy when a new bishop is ordained for a diocese.”
bishop isn’t just ordained to lead his own local network of parishes
A diocese is not an independent sect.
It is part of
the bishop’s role to embody the diocese’s connection through time with
the apostles and Jesus, and its connection through space with the wider
Church and the Successor of Peter.
Those connections are part of what we
mean by the word ‘communion’.
A deep sense of communion is what will
protect a new bishop from becoming too full of himself and too
impressed with his status, title or attire.
He is to teach and to
govern, to lead his people as a loving shepherd; to be both father and
And he does that most excellently when he presides at the
Eucharist with the participation of his priests and deacons, in the
midst of the people of the diocese.
It is no accident that the word
‘communion’ is used to describe both the relationships within the Church
and the act of receiving the consecrated gifts at the Eucharist.
bishop is first and foremost the leader and head of the Eucharistic
assembly. This is a fine sentiment, but it’s not how most people view
In Ireland, bishops have dropped the most lordly and
vainglorious excesses of past years, and, to their credit, have shown
much less appetite for bringing back lace and ostentatious ‘bling’ than
many of their brothers in other countries have been doing recently.
that is not enough.
While there has been much debate since Vatican II
about the nature of priestly identity, there hasn’t been nearly half
enough about the nature of episcopal identity.
The fallout from the
various scandals forced our bishops to adopt a more humble and cautious
The growing secularism of our day means less notice is taken
of them in the public square. All of this could make them feel timid or
But they aren’t irrelevant! Our Church is incomplete
without them and vacant dioceses are spoken of as ‘widows’.
A diocese is
a local Church and not just an administrative unit. A bishop is a
representative of Christ and not just a branch manager. They have lost
most of the poor they used to have, which is no bad thing.
haven’t really allowed or enabled them to claim and exercise the real
authority of their office.
Without reverting to the authoritarian models
which have already been rejected, we need to have a renewed sense of
who and what exactly bishops are if they are to foster ‘communion’
With three new bishops already appointed, and several more
expected soon, now would be a good time to begin that reflection.
* Martin Browne is a monk of Glenstal Abbey, Co. Limerick, and Headmaster of Glenstal Abbey School.