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How Pope Francis is reshaping the Church in western Ireland

The Vatican announced an episcopal move in Ireland Wednesday that seemed puzzling at first sight. 

St. Muredach’s Cathedral, Ballina, the cathedral church of Ireland’s Diocese of Killala. Andreas F. Borchert via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Pope Francis named Bishop Paul Dempsey, a 52-year-old who has led the Diocese of Achonry since January 2020, as an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Dublin.


The April 10 appointment was notable because it’s rare — though not unprecedented — for the head of a diocese to move to what is perceived to be the lower rank of auxiliary bishop.

The pope also accepted the resignation Wednesday of the 76-year-old Bishop John Fleming, head of the Diocese of Killala since 2002.

What exactly is happening? And what significance — if any — do the changes hold for the Catholic Church in Ireland as a whole, and perhaps even the wider Catholic world?

Map showing Ireland’s ecclesiastical provinces and dioceses. The neighboring dioceses of Achonry and Killala are colored red. Sheila1988 via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

What’s happening?

The first thing to note is the location of the two moves: the west of Ireland.

Bishop Dempsey’s Diocese of Achonry and Bishop Fleming’s Diocese of Killala are two of the five suffragan sees of the Archdiocese of Tuam. 

The Province of Tuam is, in turn, one of the four ecclesiastical provinces that comprise the Catholic Church in Ireland, alongside Armagh, Dublin, and Cashel. 

So the moves are focused on one geographical quarter of the Church in Ireland.

Pope Francis made two further appointments in the Province of Tuam Wednesday, announced by the local Church. 

He named Archbishop Francis Duffy, who has overseen the Archdiocese of Tuam since January 2022, as apostolic administrator sede vacante (the see being vacant) of the Diocese of Killala.

And he appointed Bishop Kevin Doran, who has led the Diocese of Elphin (also in Province of Tuam) since 2014, as apostolic administrator sede vacante of the Diocese of Achonry.

The April 10 moves follow another significant change in the Province of Tuam made by Pope Francis over two years ago, in February 2022. 

The pope asked Bishop Michael Duignan, who has led the Diocese of Clonfert since 2019, to also serve as bishop of the neighboring Diocese of Galway, Kilmacduagh, and Kilfenora, following the retirement of its Bishop Brendan Kelly at the age of 75.

The appointment was part of a growing trend of uniting sees in persona episcopi, unifying them “in the person of the bishop,” who oversees both dioceses, though they remain juridically separate. 

Other countries where the pope has united sees in persona episcopi include Canada, Italy, Spain, and Wales. 

The changes in February 2022 and April 2024 have together given the Province of Tuam a new profile:

  • Metropolitan Archdiocese of Tuam: Archbishop Francis Duffy.

  • Diocese of Killala: Archbishop Duffy (apostolic administrator).

  • Diocese of Elphin: Bishop Kevin Doran.

  • Diocese of Achonry: Bishop Doran (apostolic administrator).

  • Diocese of Clonfert: Bishop Michael Duignan.

  • Diocese of Galway, Kilmacduagh, and Kilfenora: Bishop Duignan.

Why is it happening?

Looking at the countries where the pope has united sees in persona episcopi, it’s clear that the dioceses tend to be in places where the Mass-going population has shrunk significantly in recent decades.

This has left a Church structure that seems top-heavy, with a bishop and diocesan apparatus serving an ever-diminishing Catholic population.

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Consider the trend in the Diocese of Achonry. According to, in 1950, the diocese served 53,720 Catholics, who accounted for 97.7% of the total population of 55,000.

In 2020, there were 36,720 Catholics, representing 91.8% of the wider population of 40,000 people. So over 70 years, the local Catholic population declined by over 30%.

It’s a similar story in the neighboring Diocese of Killala. There were 47,971 Catholics in 1950, or 97.4% of the total population of 49,237. That was down to 36,012 Catholics in 2020, or 89.2% of the total population of 40,365 —  a roughly 25% drop in Catholic numbers in 70 years. 

The eye-catching appointment of Bishop Paul Dempsey as an auxiliary bishop in the Dublin archdiocese, meanwhile, seems to be part of a shift of ecclesiastical resources toward the nation’s capital.

Archbishop Dermot Farrell has led the Dublin archdiocese since February 2021. On March 5 this year, Pope Francis named Fr. Donal Roche, a vicar general in the archdiocese, as an auxiliary bishop. 

So Dempsey will be the second auxiliary bishop joining an urban archdiocese with more than a million Catholics and 197 parishes. (He oversaw just 23 parishes in the rural Achonry diocese.)

Seventy years ago, the Dublin archdiocese served fewer than 640,000 Catholics, in 90 parishes. So it has seen a considerable rise in numbers, amid a profound process of secularization.

Dempsey appears to be relishing the challenge of ministering in this new environment.

“The late Pope Benedict reminded us that faith is exodus, it calls us to go out of ourselves,” he said April 10.

“As I set out, I am aware of the huge challenges that lie ahead.  Culturally our relationship with faith has changed and continues to change in so many ways. We continue to grapple with the big question of how to share the life-giving Gospel message of Jesus Christ in today’s reality. It is a daunting mission.”  

“However, Pope Francis tells us never to lose hope, he reminds us that: ‘Hope opens new horizons, making us capable of dreaming what is not even imaginable.’ With these encouraging words I set out with an open heart, knowing that with Christ, new horizons, new possibilities are always awaiting us.”

What are the implications?

Archbishop Duffy, the metropolitan archbishop of the ecclesiastical province of Tuam, stressed the significance of the April 10 moves.

“The announcement of this level of change in the episcopate in one province at the same time is quite significant,” he said

“It creates the possibility of exploring a closer union between the Archdiocese of Tuam and the Diocese of Killala, and between the Dioceses of Elphin and Achonry, not unlike the process that is already underway in the Dioceses of Galway and Clonfert.”  

“Any such change would involve living communities and could not be simply structural or administrative. It would require careful discernment over some time, involving the whole people of God in the respective dioceses.”

With these remarks, Duffy raised the prospect that the Province of Tuam will ultimately consist of just three bishops, each serving two dioceses united in persona episcopi

Given Wednesday’s changes, it would not be surprising if in the coming years the province looked like this:

  • Archbishop Francis Duffy: Archbishop of Tuam and Bishop of Killala.

  • Bishop Kevin Doran: Bishop of Elphin and Bishop of Achonry.

  • Bishop Michael Duignan: Bishop of Clonfert and Bishop of Galway, Kilmacduagh, and Kilfenora.

Duffy, Doran, and Duignan are respectively 65, 70, and 53 years of age, so they should continue to serve shoulder to shoulder at least until Doran reaches the typical episcopal retirement age of 75 in 2028. 

That ought to give the Vatican and the local Church time to discern whether the further step is necessary. 

Archbishop Luis Mariano Montemayor, the apostolic nuncio to Ireland since February 2023, suggested April 10 that the reorganization might not end there.

“If this process evolves still further, the associated dioceses may then merge fully under their bishop, and, in this way, the six dioceses in the Province of Tuam will eventually become three,” he said.

The implication is unmistakable: further change is coming for Catholics in the Province of Tuam. 

Meanwhile, Catholics elsewhere in Ireland may watch the consolidation process with interest, wondering whether, if deemed successful, it could inspire similar changes in other parts of the country.

Over in Rome, Vatican officials might be hoping that the Province of Tuam will offer a template for other nations once known as Catholic powerhouses but now facing the challenges of the 21st century with structures arguably designed for a different age.

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