DUBLIN, Ireland—The greatest step in the process of European unification, the introduction of a common currency, the euro, has been described as a “huge political risk” by an Irish bishop specializing in European affairs.

The first stage of the euro's introduction started on New Year's Day when the values of 11 European currencies became fixed in relation to one another and the new euro currency.

Most Europeans will not notice an immediate difference, despite the fact that some international banking transactions will be carried out in the new currency.

There won't be any real sign of a pan-European currency until January 2002. For now Europeans will continue to use their national currencies like the German mark, the Italian lira, the French franc, and the Irish punt. The only European Union country not participating in the euro is Great Britain as sterling does not belong to the European Monetary System (EMS).

Bishop Joseph Duffy of Clogher, who is a member of the European bishops conference COMMECE, said the introduction of the euro was a logical part of the move toward European unity and “inevitable” following the Maastricht Treaty.

“There is a huge political risk involved,” he admitted. “But a risk doesn't mean a disaster. People will have to work hard and responsibly. The euro is not a miracle solution.”

Bishop Duffy said the role of the Church in the new Europe is, through its social teaching, to promote agreement, respect for the person, and the idea of solidarity. He believes that the euro is part of a greater effort to progress through agreement, rather than disagreement; working on consensus, rather than difference. Indeed, Bishop Duffy said the use of illustrations of bridges to decorate the new bank notes was a symbol of this: “The imagery is positive. A bridge is something that brings people together, rather than something that separates them.”

Bishop Duffy wishes Britain was participating in the introduction of the euro—and not for purely idealistic reasons. His diocese is one of four cross-border dioceses in Ireland, where Church workers have to cope with the additional difficulty of having one currency, the punt, in the Republic of Ireland, and another currency, sterling, in Northern Ireland. He said: “It is a great pity that Britain isn't joining the rest of Europe in the euro, but we have been living with that since 1979 when we joined the EMS and they didn't.”

“We have to keep two sets of currency in our pockets when we are traveling about the diocese and you have to keep two separate accounts for all your pastoral services, otherwise you lose money in exchange charges all the time.”

George Mitchell, an accountant working for the Dublin Archdiocesan Finance Department, says the new currency will impact little on Church affairs at first, but that an education effort is needed before the Euro comes into full use in 2002. This is because the euro is worth about 75% of an Irish Punt. Mitchell said: “If people who have been donating five punts a week start donating five euros a week, that will mean a reduction of about 25%.”

The Dublin Archdiocese is Ireland's largest contributor to the “Peter's Pence” collection taken in churches across the world in July to support pontifical charities. Mitchell says that with the introduction of the new currency, he does not recommend changing the collection's name to “Peter's Eurocents,” when Eurocents replace pennies.

But he added: “I think its time to set the ‘Peter's Pence’ name aside—it comes from a particular consciousness at a particular time. A much more suitable name would be ‘the Collection for Pontifical Charities.’”

Cian Molloy writes from Dublin, Ireland.