Irish Episcopal Reshuffle Highlights Decline of Faith in Nation

Irish Episcopal Reshuffle Highlights Decline of Faith in Nation
Irish Episcopal Reshuffle Highlights Decline of Faith in Nation

In a move that has been described as the largest restructuring of the Church in Ireland for nine centuries, Pope Francis recently moved several Irish bishops from their dioceses without appointing replacements, evidencing the decline of Catholicism in the nation.

On April 10, the Holy See’s daily bulletin announced the moving of two Irish bishops away from their dioceses in what appears to be evidence of a major change in the entire ecclesial sphere in the once fiercely Catholic nation.

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The Vatican’s bulletin noted that Bishop John Fleming had resigned as bishop of Killala. At the same time, Bishop Paul Dempsey of Achonry diocese was moved to become the second auxiliary bishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. Strangely, the bulletin did not include details of any replacement bishop or temporary administrator of the diocese.

It fell to the Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Luis Mariano Montemayor, to announce the news to those of Killala and Achonry about who would have charge of the respective dioceses in the West of Ireland.

Abp. Montemayor stated that Archbishop Francis Duffy of the Archdiocese of Tuam would serve as administrator of Killala. Meanwhile, Bishop Kevin Doran of the Diocese of Elphin would become administrator of Achonry.

Province of Tuam Reduces Bishops

But Abp. Montemayor presented further, more revealing details about the true import and meaning of the diocesan maneuvers. He stated that “in due time, and following careful assessment and consultation, the present Dioceses of Tuam and Killala on the one hand, and Elphin and Achonry on the other, may be governed by one bishop in each case, just as the Dioceses of Galway and Clonfert are today governed by one bishop.”

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As noted by the Apostolic Nuncio, the two dioceses of Galway and Clonfert were already placed under the charge of Bishop Michael Duignan in February 2022, thus uniting the dioceses under one prelate.

The Archdiocese of Tuam is one of four ecclesiastical provinces in Ireland, comprising the dioceses of Achonry, Clonfer, Elphin, Galway, Killala, and Tuam. As a result of the Holy See’s appointments, starting with Bp. Duignan in 2022 and the April 10 moves, the six dioceses now have only three bishops between them, and this looks set to be a new norm.

According to the most recent data from the Irish bishops, the six dioceses of the Province of Tuam have 202 parishes between them, comprising over 430 churches.

Prior Change in Raphoe

The episcopal reassignments in the West of Ireland had been prefaced some few weeks before by a similar move. On February 2, Bishop Alan McGuckian S.J. was assigned to become bishop of the Diocese of Down and Connor, which had been a vacant see since late 2022. Bishop McGuckian was thus transferred from his see of Raphoe.

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Among the numerous significant aspects surrounding the recent episcopal moves is that the Holy See did not include details of who would assume charge of the dioceses when making the announcements regarding the new postings for Bishops McGuckian, Fleming and Dempsey. For the latter, it was left to the Nuncio to announce this.

Regarding Bp. McGuckian’s move from Raphoe, he himself announced that it would be a diocesan group of priests who would elect the diocesan administrator who would lead the diocese until a new bishop was appointed.

Thus, both the February and April 2024 announcements were marked by a signal change in tone from the Holy See—a sense that the Vatican was establishing a norm of removing bishops without seeing a need or having the capacity to replace them.

Indeed, observers of the Church in Ireland have also reported how ecclesial rumors hint at the Diocese of Raphoe being merged with the neighboring Diocese of Derry when Derry’s bishop reaches retirement age next year.

What Import?

The once overwhelming Catholic nation of Ireland has been quite struck by the news of the restricting of the Tuam Province. The Independent described it as “the most extensive restructuring of the Catholic church here in roughly 900 years.” The Irish Times safely predicted that such changes would be replicated throughout the nation.

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Indeed, Tuam’s Archbishop Duffy stated that the reduction of bishops and amalgamation of dioceses was evidence of the Catholic Church in the nation “responding to the signs of the times, looking at what we have, our resources, our structures and are these adequate for the situation which we find ourselves and we feel that these changes are important and valuable and will allow us to continue into the 21st century in the west of Ireland in particular, responding to those challenges.”

He described the change as a “good news story,” representing “a good sign of the church…responding to the needs of the times, pooling our resources and trying to provide as good a service as we can.”

The Nuncio commented, “Although we seek to preserve at all times our essential identity, we adopt measures to meet new challenges as they arise.” He expressed the hope that the changes would “give added impetus and vitality to the communities concerned.” {When questioned by this reporter, the Papal Nuncio declined to comment further on the news, pointing back simply to his public statement announcing the changes.}

But describing the moves as a “good news story” cannot alter the undeniable fact that they give witness to—namely, the catastrophic decline of the practice of the Catholic faith in Ireland in recent years and decades and the accompanying decline of clergy and bishops.

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Some 90% percent of Irish people called themselves Catholics in 2006; in 2022, that figure had dropped to 69%. However, such a stark decline does not present the whole story since many self-professed Catholics gave their vocal support to introducing homosexual “marriage” and abortion into the country in recent years.

Writing in 2020, Catholic apologist James Bradshaw argued that Catholicism, particularly Mass attendance, had become “as much a social outing as it is anything else.”

“For many older Irish Catholics, regular Mass attendance has little to do with religious faith and more to do with routine, a routine which a few generations ago attracted virtually the entire Irish population to church each Sunday morning,” he wrote.

The pro-female deacon group Association of Catholic Priests found that in 2021, only around 30% of Irish Catholics attended weekly Mass, compared to 90% in the seventies. Priest numbers have also plummeted: there were only 2,116 for the entire island as of the 2022 census.

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The downward spiral of Ireland’s vocations crisis has been noted by careful observers for many years. No fewer than eight diocesan seminaries have closed in Ireland since 1993 due to the steady erosion of the Catholic faith and vocations across the island.

While the National Seminary of Maynooth can accommodate 500 seminarians, it admitted just four new seminarians in 2021—the lowest number since 2017, when only six entered. According to a September 2022 report by the Irish Catholic, 10 of Ireland’s 26 dioceses had no seminarians in formation at that point.

2022 saw a slight improvement: Nine new seminarians were recruited for Maynooth, while 15 new entrants were recruited in 2023. As of the 2023-2024 academic year, there are now 64 seminarians for all the Irish dioceses across various seminaries in Ireland and abroad.

With large swathes of the Irish clergy rapidly approaching retirement age, a nationwide year of prayer for vocations was launched last year, which culminated on April 21. As chair of the Council for Vocations, Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan of the Diocese of Waterford and Lismore, who led the vocations campaign, told the Irish Independent that it was “a battle” to promote vocations due to the fallout from the sex abuse crisis.

Ireland is No Longer Catholic

But it seems that the practice of the faith is declining at all levels, both episcopal and lay. Commenting on the Irish bishops’ cooperative effort with the Irish government to cease public Masses during COVID-19, a priest in rural Ireland told this reporter that the bishops had betrayed the faith by voluntarily closing the churches: “By doing so, the Church in Ireland has deemed the practice of our faith non-essential … It’s been a disaster … The Church in Ireland is a devastated vineyard.”

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“Ireland is no longer Catholic,” Immaculata Productions’ Fr. Brendan Kilcoyne stated in 2021.

However, the “devastated vineyard” is by no means dead, as Fr Kilcoyne also pointed out. Certain vibrant pockets of life still remain, with communities faithful to the Church’s tradition steadily and quietly growing while the nominal Catholics equally steadily decrease. During the COVID-19 restrictions, certain priests publicly exemplified the spirit of the Irish martyrs and defied the bans on public worship, being penalized with fines and risking jail terms. Their witness became the subject of international focus on the Catholic faith and the centrality of the Mass.

But until such Catholic spirit prevails throughout the entire country once again, the visible presence of the Catholic Church in Ireland looks destined to be small, restricted and led largely by aging clergy. Such a situation should call for reflection and a search for solutions. It is not a “good news story.”

Photo Credit:  © Dmitry Kovalchuk –