Sunday, May 26, 2024

Is Italy’s ‘in persona episcopi’ experiment for diocesan mergers ending?

No country in the world has as many dioceses united in persona episcopi as Italy.

That’s partly because Italy has a vast number of dioceses to begin with: 226 in all. That’s more than the 194 in the U.S., although America has millions more Catholics.

Italy has a total of 41 dioceses united in persona episcopi, or “in the person of the bishop.” 

This means that the Vatican has taken two dioceses and, instead of merging them, appointed a single bishop to oversee both, while preserving the dioceses as separate entities.

On May 2 this year, for example, the Vatican announced that the Italian dioceses of San Benedetto del Tronto-Ripatransone-Montalto and Ascoli Piceno would be united in persona episcopi. The dioceses remain in their previous form, but 58-year-old Archbishop Gianpiero Palmieri is now responsible for them both.

The in persona episcopi trend has spread to other countries with declining Catholic practice, including Canada, Ireland, Spain, and Wales

But could the drive to unite Italy’s dioceses in persona episcopi be coming to an end?

The Pillar takes a look.

Pressure for change

Wherever you travel in Italy, you’re likely to see a cathedral. There are more than 300 of them, according to one estimate, ranging from world-famous buildings such as Florence Cathedral and Milan Cathedral to less familiar structures in out-of-the-way places. 

Where there’s a cathedral, you might expect to find a bishop and a diocese dating back centuries. But that’s not necessarily the case. 

For roughly a century, Church officials have expressed concern that Italy has too many dioceses. 

The Lateran Treaty of 1929 called for diocesan boundaries to be aligned with the provinces of the state of Italy. It suggested this could be achieved by suppressing dioceses when they fell vacant. But the plan was never carried out.

Decades later, in 1964, Pope Paul VI spoke of an “excessive number of dioceses” in his Italian homeland.

In 1966, he told Italy’s bishops that it would be “necessary to redraw the boundaries of some dioceses, but most of all, we must go ahead with the merging of not a few dioceses, so that the resulting circumscription has a territorial extension, a demographic consistency, and an endowment of clergy and works sufficient to support a truly functional diocesan organization and to develop effective and unitary pastoral activity.”

Twenty years later, in 1986, the Polish Pope John Paul II took the dramatic step of suppressing 101 Italian dioceses at a stroke.

The move created some of the cumbersome names we see today. The Diocese of Assisi, for example, was merged with the Diocese of Nocera Umbra-Gualdo Tadino (itself formed from two dioceses in 1915). The new diocese became known as the Diocese of Assisi-Nocera Umbra-Gualdo Tadino — which must be a challenge to fit on headed notepaper.

But some in the Church thought that the reduction of dioceses by roughly a third didn’t go far enough. Indeed, the future Congregation for Bishops prefect and Cardinal Lucas Moreira Neves wrote in L’Osservatore Romano in 1986 that 119 dioceses should be “considered very close to the ideal” number.

Pope Benedict XVI, John Paul II’s successor, created a commission to assess whether there should be a further consolidation of dioceses.

A draft proposing the suppression of Italian dioceses with fewer than 100,000 inhabitants was reportedly submitted to the Congregation for Bishops in 2015. A later draft lowered the bar to 90,000 inhabitants, potentially affecting 36 dioceses, including Assisi-Nocera Umbra-Gualdo Tadino. 

In a 2018 address to the Italian bishops, Pope Francis described the resistance he had encountered to further steps to reduce the number of dioceses.

“Last year we were about to merge one with another,” he recalled, “but they came to me from there and said: ‘It is tiny, the diocese… Father, why are you doing this? The university has gone, they have closed a school, now there is no mayor, there is a delegate, now you too…’ And we feel this pain and say: ‘Let the bishop remain, because they are suffering.’”

But the pope said that, nonetheless, there were dioceses that ought to be merged, describing it as “a pastoral need” that had been “neglected for too long.” 

“And I believe the time has come to conclude it as soon as possible,” he remarked. “It is easy to do it, it is easy … Perhaps there are one or two cases that cannot be done now, for what I said earlier — because it is an abandoned territory — but something can be done.”

Yet what followed was not a wave of mergers, in which smaller dioceses were suppressed. Rather, dozens of Italian dioceses were united in persona episcopi.

The following dioceses were unified under a single bishop:

The ‘in persona episcopi’ solution

It’s easy to understand the attraction of the in persona episcopi solution.

Suppressing a smaller diocese outright might provoke a revolt among local Catholics. Uniting dioceses in persona episcopi keeps both jurisdictions — with their distinctive communities, histories, and characteristics — intact. 

At the same time, it encourages the sharing of resources, helping to pave the way for a possible future merger.  

But there are downsides. Catholics in the smaller dioceses might be left with a sense of apprehension, suspecting that if the change goes smoothly they will be marked down for suppression.

Meanwhile, bishops already struggling to cope with the demands of 21st-century episcopal life are required to take on whole new dioceses, possibly doubling their workloads. 

When it comes to sharing resources, bishops may have to make difficult decisions about who gets what, potentially pitting the dioceses in their care against one another.

An episcopal backlash

A meeting between Pope Francis and the Italian bishops at the Vatican this week made clear that the wave of in persona episcopi appointments has created problems. 

The May 20 meeting was held behind closed doors, so it’s impossible to know for certain what was said. But a write-up by Vatican News noted that since his election, Pope Francis had encouraged Italy’s bishops to engage in an “in-depth reflection” on the amalgamation of dioceses.

The report explained that this reflection needed to take into account “the perplexities of some of the bishops themselves about the different cultural identities of each territory and the risk of an enlargement such as to create difficulties in the proximity of shepherds.” 

The report noted that bishops from various Italian regions had met with the pope this year on ad limina visits, allowing “the pontiff to ‘have information’ that was previously unclear.”

It said: “In recent years there have been 41 Italian dioceses unified in persona episcopi. But it is not a given that we will continue on this path: this is what emerged today in the dialogue between the pope and the bishops: a rethinking of this procedure is in fact possible.”

It added: “One proposal that has emerged is to unify more of the structures, including the regional seminaries themselves (often populated by a small group of aspiring priests), as urged by the pope himself on several occasions in the past.”

The Italian bishops’ newspaper Avennire offered a slightly different account of the almost two-hour-long discussion between the pope and bishops.

It said that “among Francis’ most significant answers was one related to the amalgamation of dioceses in persona episcopi.” 

“Not a definitively plotted path,” it wrote. “On the contrary, after these first experiments, it is good to stop and reflect.”

Sources close to the Italian Church told The Pillar that resistance to the in persona episcopi wave had come from bishops who believe it’s better to preserve dioceses with all their distinctive features, rather than seeking to unify them under a single leader.

What’s next

This week’s reports suggest that the pope and his advisers are willing to consider a pause in persona episcopi moves in response to the concerns.

But it seems they would expect something in return: a greater openness among the Italian bishops to unifying institutions, such as regional seminaries.

In March 2023, for example, Pope Francis encouraged the bishops of 11 dioceses in Calabria, southern Italy, to combine their seminaries.

“A seminary of four, five, 10, is not a seminary, it does not form seminarians,” the pope said.

He told the bishops that while “decisions must be made on this,” it would “not be Rome to tell you what you should do, no: because you have the charism.”

At their meeting this week, Pope Francis and Italy’s bishops also discussed the country’s worrying decline in priestly vocations. Fewer priests will mean a smaller pool of potential bishops, which could in turn make it harder for the Vatican to find leaders for the country’s abundant dioceses.

Alongside the drop in priests is a fall in practicing Catholic lay people. In July 2023, the Catholic magazine Il Timone estimated that 13.8% of Italy’s 59 million population attends Sunday Mass. 

That was far lower than other estimates, including a survey commissioned by the Italian bishops’ conference, which concluded that weekly Mass attendance had fallen from 31% in 1995 to 22% in 2020.

Commenting on Mass attendance figures, Il Timone’s director Lorenzo Bertocchi wrote: “John Paul II called it the ‘Italian exception,’ but today it is no more, because even Italians, a people of saints, poets, and navigators, are now people of little faith.”

So even if in persona episcopi appointments are paused, or even stopped entirely, the conviction that Italy still has too many dioceses will likely grow stronger. And a future pope may decide, like John Paul II, that a further 100 or so dioceses are excess to requirements.