Wednesday, May 01, 2024

Diocesan changes are met with a sense of sadness and unease (Opinion)

When I was 13 or so and a boarder in St Muredach’s College, I was given the honour of serving Mass every morning for the then Bishop of Killala, Patrick O’Boyle, who lived adjacent to the college. 

Each morning I ran across to his house, lifted the latch on the back door and scurried up the stairs to a tiny oratory where he was kneeling in prayer.

Our exchange of pleasantries followed a limited and unvarying pattern.

Bishop: Is it raining? 

Me: Yes (or No) My Lord. 

That was it – apart from the responses to the Mass in Latin that followed an unvarying pattern and with which I was both familiar and practiced, having been tutored by St Perpetua Hynes in my native Ballycastle.

O’Boyle was a mild man, and I was surprised to discover in later years that, in the controversy over his dispute with striking primary teachers in Ballina in the 1950s, he had resisted enormous pressure from Archbishop John Charles McQuaid – eventually having to remind McQuaid that he had no jurisdiction over Killala diocese.

I thought of Bishop O‘Boyle and his successors – Tommy McDonnell and Tommy Finnegan – and wondered how they would have responded to the recent news that Killala diocese was being ‘merged’ into Tuam. With surprise, I’d imagine, but possibly too with a mixture of unease, disappointment and sadness.

A range of similar feelings are now being experienced by the people and priests of Killala diocese. 

While it was obvious for some years that the downward spiral in the Catholic population, in religious practice and crucially in priest numbers was moving inexorably towards some form of rationalisation, it was one thing to predict the inevitable but a different matter to accept the reality of the disappearance of a diocesan identity and its history and traditions in all their familiar manifestations.

With any kind of dying, its implications, personal and far-reaching, tend to catch us by surprise. We never realise how deep-seated the influences and how substantial and potent the sense of loss can be. That’s unsurpisingly true of the loss of loved ones but also stunningly true of less personal closures.

Many, I suspect, were surprised by the sense of loss and sadness that accompanied the expected changes for Killala and Achonry dioceses. While those outside the experience can milk the more positive implications of change and can even advise the disappointed to get over themselves, those inside the experience find it difficult to rise to that wisdom.

It's interesting that the two bishops least emotionally involved in the proposed changes, Archbishop Francis Duffy of Tuam and Bishop Kevin Dolan of Elphin, have been most positive about their possibilities. It’s instructive too that, in recent years, the two dioceses most active in researching their history and traditions have been Killala and Achonry.

While it may be necessary to amplify the positivities of the new arrangements, it can be a bridge too far – certainly in the short term – for those experiencing a sense of loss and unease and whose natural sensitivities need to be respected. 

Expectations, say, of ‘a new Springtime’ may (hopefully) turn out to be true but in the short term could be interpreted as a diminishment of the contribution the supporting diocese may be expected to play in the new ‘union’.

Part of the problem with uniting dioceses is that the lesser party can be in denial of it ever happening or may fail to imagine what it might actually look like in practice. Unrealistic expectations of what alternatives are available, despite the obvious data influencing the possible range of decisions, can feed that presumption. Like imagining that even though priest numbers in a given diocese in the immediate future of less than ten, that a diocese would be entitled to ‘at least an auxiliary’!

In recent months, when reading between the lines of comments made by the Papal Nuncio that Tuam and Killala would merge, I thought of the most famous Killala priest who became the most famous Tuam bishop – John MacHale, a native of Lahardane.

McHale served in Killala for ten years (1824-34). Appointed as a lecturer in Maynooth College, immediately after his ordination at 23, eleven years later he was appointed coadjutor bishop of Killala. Ten years later, in April 1834, on the death of Bishop Peter Waldron, he became bishop of Killala and six months later, in October of the same year, archbishop of Tuam.

It was no secret that MacHale had his eye on Tuam for some time. Just two years after being appointed to Killala, when he was invited by a number of Kilmore (Cavan) priests to submit his name for appointment to that diocese, he pointedly declared that he didn’t wish to leave his own province. 

There was general consensus that MacHale – ambitious, gifted and with a strong national profile – was declaring his preference for a bishopric in the West and that he didn’t have either Clonfert or Achonry in his sights!

That said there was no doubting MacHale’s concern for his native diocese. 

Some would even say that the possibility of bringing Killala with him to Tuam had crossed his mind but that happy dispensation of a merger was not to be. 

As metropolitan –the head of the province – the task of appointing his successor in Killala fell into his lap and he brought the full force of his position and person to bear on persuading the Killala priests (and Rome) to accept that Francis O’Finan, a Dominican friar and a native of Corrimbla, Ballina was the best choice to take on the mantle of St Muredach. 

It would, despite MacHale’s best efforts, all end in tears with an investigation by Rome into the mayhem that followed and O’Finan’s removal as bishop.

It all goes to show how mixing cocktails can sometimes end in tears.