Derry could have to wait up to two years before it has a new Bishop.
The revelation follows this week’s announcement by Bishop Seamus Hegarty that he is to stand down for health reasons.
Dr. Hegarty said he had offered his resignation to Pope Benedict after receiving a diagnosis of a medical condition which is “irreversible and progressive”.
Michael Kelly, deputy editor of the influential ‘Irish Catholic’ newspaper - which is said to have sources close to the church hierarchy - says parishioners across the Derry diocese could be in for “quite a long wait” before a new Bishop is appointed.
He said: “The first stage of the process is that the Pope will appoint an apostolic administrator - who could be selected from either within or outside the diocese - to run church affairs locally.
“The papal nunciature in Dublin may then contact a number of priests in the diocese, as well as prominent lay people, and, perhaps, bishops in adjoining dioceses, to gauge their opinion.
“All in all, it could take up to a year, even two years, before a new Bishop is chosen.”
Michael Kelly says Bishop Hegarty’s offer to resign is just the latest in a series from Irish Bishops. Three others have done so recently as they are over 75 - the age at which a Bishop must offer his resignation - while there are still vacancies in Limerick, Kildare Leighlin, and Cloyne, resulting in seven of Ireland’s 26 Catholic dioceses awaiting the appointment of a new Bishop.
Michael Kelly says the Vatican could use these vacancies as an opportunity to amalgamate dioceses. However, he remains unconvinced that Derry - the fourth largest diocese in Ireland with around 235,000 Catholics - will be merged with another diocese.
Mr. Kelly also agrees with speculation that two local priests head the running to become Derry’s new Bishop - Monsignors Eamon Martin and Bryan McCanny.
“Mgr. Martin has a very strong background in education and I believe it’s relevant that he was brought back to Derry from his work in Armagh to assist Bishop Hegarty. Mgr. McCanny, who has a very shrewd head on his shoulders and is a trained accountant, has a clear track record of negotiating parishes through difficult financial times. I believe both these men are serious contenders to be the next Bishop of Derry.”