By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Society of African Missions Fr. Kieran O’Reilly, a leading voice among religious in Rome and a veteran missionary in Liberia and Nigeria, was appointed this morning the new Bishop of Killaloe in Ireland by Pope Benedict XVI.
O’Reilly has served as Superior General of the Society of African Missions since 2001.
O’Reilly replaces Bishop William Walsh, who resigned for reasons of age. Three other Irish bishops have recently stepped down amid that country’s sexual abuse crisis, with two other resignations offered but not yet accepted. Given that there are just 31 members of the Irish bishops’ conference, Benedict XVI is effectively overhauling the country’s episcopacy.
It’s the nature of a crisis that sometimes choices with important long-term consequences are made on the fly. In the case of O’Reilly, his nomination has at least three implications worth pondering, beyond its immediate implications for the sexual abuse crisis:
•tIt adds an important figure from religious life to the episcopacy, perhaps easing what many observers have long regarded as a breach between some of the more progressive religious orders and the church’s official leadership structures;
•tIt adds a politically and theologically moderate voice to the English-speaking hierarchy, someone especially concerned with the church’s peace-and-justice teaching;
•tIt also adds a bishop well positioned to help Catholicism navigate the demographic transitions underway, preparing for a future in which the church’s center of gravity is increasingly in the southern hemisphere.
O’Reilly, 57, was born in Cork and ordained a priest for the Society of African Missions in 1978. He served as a missionary in Liberia before obtaining a license in Scripture from the prestigious Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. He then taught scripture in Nigeria before serving in a series of leadership roles within the Society for African Missions, culminating in his election as Superior General in 2001 and reelection in 2007.
O’Reilly has long been a leading figure within the Union of Superiors General, the main umbrella group for men’s religious orders in Rome, sometimes representing USG at Synods of Bishops – most recently, last year’s Synod on Africa. He’s also a frequent speaker at events organized by SEDOS, a forum for missionary orders, and a leader within the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation group for religious orders.
He arrives in Ireland at a time of division within the bishops’ conference, related in large part to contrasting impressions of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin. Martin has earned high marks in the press and the general public for his forthright handling of the sexual abuse crisis, but has suffered backlash from some fellow bishops and clergy who believe he’s essentially thrown them under the bus.
Perhaps reflecting that pressure, Martin recently complained of “strong forces” in the church who “would prefer that the truth did not emerge,” and about “signs of a rejection of a sense of responsibility for what had happened.”
Like Martin, who came to the job in Dublin in 2003 out of Vatican service, O’Reilly has never served as a diocesan bishop in Ireland and is therefore untainted by the scandals documented in the government-commissioned “Murphy Report” and elsewhere.
He’s generally seen as an able administrator and an engaging and media-friendly personality, meaning that he may be able to help Martin carry some of the public weight for the church’s response to the crisis.