Apostolic Visitation Recommends Reconfiguration of the Church in Ireland

The Holy See finds that the Church was ill-prepared to meet the needs of the faithful.

Cardinal Sean Brady
Cardinal Sean Brady (photo: Reuters)

DUBLIN, Ireland — Church leaders in Ireland have confirmed that the nation’s diocesan structure will be reconfigured, with some dioceses consolidated into one entity and new bishops appointed.

The decision was made in the wake of a high-level Irish apostolic visitation conducted by the Holy See, which identified governance problems with the present structure and concluded that the local Church was ill-prepared for advancing the New Evangelization in a nation that has witnessed a rapid decline in church attendance and vocations.

The news was announced at a March 20 press conference at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, County Kildare, following the publication of the summary of the findings of the Irish apostolic visitation.

Cardinal Sean Brady, archbishop of Armagh, president of the Irish Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, vice president of the bishops’ conference, and the country’s new apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, were in attendance, a signal that the Church leadership stood behind the findings of the apostolic visitation.

After the announcement, Cardinal Brady was asked to explain why many Irish bishops remained in office, given the report’s criticism of their governance.

“Hopefully we will get more new bishops as soon as possible,” the cardinal replied. “In the meantime, the work must go on. We mustn’t lose heart; we must put our trust in the mercy and forgiveness of God. That’s why I want to repeat again my plea for forgiveness from those who have been abused, and I apologize and offer my deep-felt sorrow.”

He expressed his hope that the Pope would identify “the proverbial ‘new brooms.’ This is a call for the future to look towards renewal by listening to what the word of God says to us humbly and what the Holy Spirit is offering us.”

Cardinal Brady noted that he had requested a new auxiliary bishop in Armagh over two years ago, but he had been told that no one would be appointed until after the visitation was completed.

The summary report stated that the visitation “placed in question the present configuration of dioceses in Ireland and their ability to respond adequately to the challenges of the New Evangelization.”

Asked to explain this finding, Archbishop Martin confirmed that the visitation team had discussed “the unification of the dioceses.”

But he said that this outcome had nothing to do with the episcopate’s handling of the clergy abuse crisis and had been under review before the visitation.

That said, he went on to acknowledge that “there are certainly governance issues.”

Cardinal Brady confirmed that discussion about the re-configuration of Irish dioceses preceded the visitation: “We have made some initial proposals, but we do not want it to be linked to the child sex-abuse matter. As you can see in the report, it is ongoing business.”

“We must remember that this was a pastoral visitation which seeks to understand and work out the implications of faith for a given situation in which the Church finds itself. We mustn’t ever forget that. And it was also to us a help to keep the Church going forward,” said Cardinal Brady.

The summary of the report mentioned “a certain tendency, not dominant, but nevertheless fairly widespread among priests, religious and laity, to hold theological opinions at variance with the teachings of the magisterium,” and Archbishop Martin was asked to comment on that characterization of Church personnel.

Archbishop Martin said that within the Church there is “an understanding of the Church in which the teaching authority is relativized.”

He added: “There are some people in Ireland who would say, ‘Let’s move away from Rome.’ But the role of the Bishop of Rome is fundamental to our understanding of what the Church is.

“There are some issues. I’m not saying that we’re going out heresy-hunting, but what we should be doing is carrying on a dialogue with the theological community, sharpening the reflection in areas that really go beyond what is acceptable in the realm of Catholic theology.”

The apostolic visitation to Ireland included North American Church leaders Cardinal Sean O’ Malley of Boston, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins, as well as Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’ Connor, emeritus archbishop of Westminster.

During the press conference, the newly appointed apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Brown, framed the report “as policy formulation for the future for the Church in Ireland based on the visitation of four archdioceses in this country and 31 religious communities.”

Judging from the remarks and tone of the press conference, Ireland’s Church leaders have begun to hope that the report’s findings will mark the end of one tragic period in the local Church’s history and the advent of fresh opportunity to rebuild their credibility and re-evangelize a culture that has witnessed a drastic decline in Church attendance and vocations.

Register correspondent James Kelly is a columnist for The Universe, the highest-circulation Catholic weekly in Britain and Ireland, and a researcher at the University of London.