8 March 2015


Plans are afoot, it seems, drastically to reduce the number of 'smaller' Italian dioceses. I'm not terribly enthusiastic about this. There have already, I understand, been too many amalgamations.

History has known different models of diocesan episcopacy. One thinks perhaps primarily of (1) the old 'city-state' model: a middle-sized market town and the villages socially and economically attached to it; and (2) the gigantic northern European dioceses based upon pre-urban tribal boundaries (medieval Oxford was in the diocese of Lincoln).

(1) goes back to the first evangelisation, when Christianity took root in the polis well before it spread out among the pagani. It is still alive in the dreamier parts of the Mediterranean. Or rather, it was back in the '60s. I rather liked it. The Bishop was not a distant prelate or what Gregory Dix called a cheerfully brisk businessman in gaiters. People could drop in for a cup of coffee and to gossip, and, most Sundays, he celebrated in his Cathedral in the presence of a sizeable percentage of his people. Perhaps most of the babies were still baptised in the Baptistry attached to the Cathedral. The boundaries were there; you never forgot he was the bishop, but the sort of prelacy which sadly encrusts episcopacy in this country was happily absent. Having a Bishop in the Apostolic Succession does not have to mean that he lives a couple of hours' driving away and has all the apparatus of secretaries and menials to keep the common people at a distance; the over-loaded diary; the perpetual feeling that you're taking up too much of the time of somebody with terribly important things to do. "Call me Bob" is no substitute for feeling that somebody really has got space for you. I remember Mervyn Stockwood who, even before his Chauffeur had got the car moving after a parish visit, was already talking into his dictaphone.

It's the system I blame, not the Bishops. Even though I'm not incardinated into the Diocese of Portsmouth, Bishop Philip Egan has been a model of a kindly pastor (and he has got a real reforming grip upon his diocese and writes delightful Pastorals of refreshing orthodoxy). And I hear well of Mark O'Toole ... but, good heavens, his diocese stretches from the Scillies to the Eastern borders of Dorset. (Does anybody remember that very funny joke he told us in Allen Hall? I've completely forgotten it except for the punch-line "I didn't mean the whole b****y bucket".)

We learned what true, pastoral episcopacy was when we had our flying Bishops. I had learned it earlier, in South London, in my friendship with Bishop Christopher Commodatos and his Cypriot congregation. The Bishop as the high-powered District Manager is a concept that leaves me cold.

I hope those dozy little Italian dioceses survive. But I bet they won't.


Adrian said...

As I remember him, if + Mervyn was enjoying himself, nothing would persuade him to go.

RichardT said...

Bishop Mark's authority does not quite run to the eastern edge of (modern) Dorset.

In the ghastly savaging of counties in the 1970s, Dorset annexed the part of Bournemouth that it did not control (and also Christchurch) from Hampshire.

The Catholic Church splendidly ignored these innovations so Plymouth diocese stops at the old boundary, half way through Bournemouth.

One practical effect of this is the Old Rite Mass in Bournemouth, legally in Dorset but under the authority of Bishop Philip of Portsmouth.

Alan said...

It has been going on for rather a long time, Father. The current archdiocese of Sorrrento-Castellammare di Stabia also includes the suppressed sees of Capri, Vico Equense and Massa Lubrense. Just down the road, S. Alphonsus' diocese of Sant'Agata dei Goti has also disappeared into a merger.

Claudio Salvucci said...

There is indeed precedent. 400 bishops in a tiny coastal strip of Roman North Africa. Then a drastic reduction program, which I believe made copious use of armed individuals from the general vicinity of Arabia.

W.C. Hoag said...

I have become a firm believer that no diocese should have more than 30 parishes and no parish more than 100 households. We need to be dividing dioceses into smaller dioceses, not amalgamating!

Gerald said...

My ancestral hilltown in Italy (right where Lazio, Tuscany and Umbria meet) is dominated by what is now a parish church. I believe the dome is the third-largest in Italy (after the Vatican basilica and Florence's duomo). The town has 30,000 people, but that didn't stop John Paul II from suppressing the diocese in 1986 and absorbing it into Viterbo 30 minutes to the south.