Is Church reform finally coming to Ireland? A new bishop has said he supports a “national gathering” for “deep reflection” on the Church’s future.

Driving the news

This January 27 Pope Francis appointed Father Paul Dempsey, parish priest of Newbridge in the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin, as Bishop of Achonry, in Ireland’s west.

“The diocese here [Achonry] is steeped in faith going back to the sixth century with its patrons’ Saint Nathy and Saint Attracta”, Dempsey said in a statement after the announcement of his appointment.

“Over the centuries that faith has adapted to changing times and now that faith is in our hands. We need to reflect deeply on how we nourish and hand on that faith today in the midst of many challenging questions.

“As we begin this new chapter together may we be ‘bold and creative’ in our task and mission of reaching out to all with the message of Jesus Christ”, the new bishop-elect added.

Go deeper

That focus on reflecting “deeply” on the faith and its transmission and on being “bold and creative” in mission is a concern Dempsey has had since at least 2010.

In December of that year, Dempsey wrote that the Church in Ireland, after and in the midst of myriad scandals, “needs to enter into a period of deep reflection” on “our changed and changing culture” that would culminate not in a “purely activist understanding of evangelisation” but “in some form of national Church gathering”.

That idea of a “national Church gathering” is something other Irish priests and laypeople have been desiring for some time, and for much the same reasons as Dempsey.

“… [P]eople are not being heard such as women and their role within the Church, also those who find themselves in a strained relationship with the Church because of a second relationship or their sexual orientation”, the bishop-elect wrote in 2010.

Just as a few examples of “how many faithful people and priests feel they are not being listened to in the Church”.

“This is leading to a great deal of frustration.  Many are seriously disillusioned, finding themselves in a ‘wilderness'”.

Why it matters

High on Dempsey’s reform agenda in 2010 were the appointment of bishops and the plunge in vocations.

On that first point, the new bishop wrote: “… the very same process… has happened around the appointment of bishops in Ireland for decades.

“We are told of renewal in the Irish Church in the light of recent revelations, but there seems to be a distinct lack of renewal in this very significant area of Church life.

“This system, as we have so clearly seen, has not served us well in the past. 

“Surely it is time to refresh this process and open it up to far wider consultation?  Could those with influence in this area perhaps listen to what so many priests and people are saying?”

On the question of the lack of priests, Dempsey warned already ten years ago that “as parish priests retire there are no replacements therefore parishes are being joined together and the ‘territory’ to cover for priests is expanding rapidly.

“Many retired men are generous with their time and energy and continue to cover masses in many places, but this is only putting off the day for further change.

“We talk of ‘clusters’ and ‘pastoral areas’, trying to ‘manage’ this rapid change. But surely we need more than a mere ‘management strategy’?”

Why it matters

The point for the new bishop-elect of Achonry is that, in the Irish Church, “we seem to be stumbling in a haphazard way into the future”.

“Where is the debate within the Irish Catholic Church around the direction we are going?  In particular where is the voice of the younger generation of clergy?”

“We are met by a deafening silence from the Church on so many issues.  Surely this is not good enough!”, Dempsey complained.

To remedy that deafening silence, the bishop-elect offered the following prescription which many Irish Catholics will be hoping he follows up on in his new ministry:

“The main challenge to the Christian church today, in this country, is not from any external threat, be it secularism, materialism, consumerism, or postmodernism.

“The main challenge is the internal one of ensuring that the integrity, the reality, and the relevance of the Church’s life and worship, its teaching and communication, must strike a meaningful chord in a society that still has an appetite for spiritual reality. 

“Where people see in our churches that our walk matches our talk, where they see, lived out in the daily pressures of life, real hope, truth, conviction, commitment, forgiveness, wholeness, community, generosity, concern for the poor, lives and situations transformed, where they see God at work then their interest will follow”.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.