This week, over one hundred priests of the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle have come together at Ushaw College, Durham, for the annual clergy retreat, and our bishop, Bishop Seamus Cunningham, is with us. The retreat is being led by Father Eamon Mulcahy, a Spiritan (Holy Ghost Father).
But rather than comment on the ongoing retreat, I would like to comment on two other things.
First, this week I see a different side of Ushaw to the side I saw a few weeks ago when I was here for the Ushaw Training Conference. This week I am lodging in what we used in the Fifties to call the New Wing but is now called St Bede's (the new New Wing now is the Conference Centre to the east of the College overlooking the Bounds). This old New Wing, on the west side of the College, has been transformed from the time I was here as a student: all the rooms are now en suite with shower, etc, really quite comfortable and of a very high standard.
Second: the Bishop began the retreat by addressing us all and talking about the likely problems which would face the diocese in the next few years, say the next ten years. He and a group of his advisors had spent several days recently discussing the future, and although I cannot remember everything he said in his talk, he certainly said that the way we had always done things in the past would be unsustainable in the future.
My point in this second comment is that I don't think we will ever again be able to gather a group of over a hundred priests of the diocese for a retreat. Many of the priests on the retreat are already retired, and others, like myself, are within the retirement bracket, and in ten years, who knows how many priests will be left in active work in the diocese. The bishop is talking, I think, of how to run his diocese with maybe only half the active priests that he has today. Admittedly, the numbers of church-going Catholics is also falling, and so one could say that not so many priests are needed (apart from the fact that if we had more priests we could do more to contact those who have stopped coming!)
But I fear that the diocese is going to see something of a shake-up and amalgamations and closures and there will be some very unhappy people who will not understand why this is happening to them and to their parish.
Difficult decisions lie ahead. Who would be a bishop? We should say a prayer for him and for the diocese.