Rumours are circulating in Rome that the Vatican is planning something dramatic for the Irish Church in the next few months. The talk is that the number of dioceses will be significantly reduced from the current 26 and that most of our current bishops will be replaced.
We should hope and pray that the Vatican is bold enough to make such a move because if the Church in Ireland is to have any hope of recovery then we need a hierarchy that can look the public in the eye again.
The Vatican usually dislikes political analogies because the Church cannot be directly compared with a political organisation, but I think in this case a political analogy is apt.
Our last government was not able to look the public in the eye when talking about the economy because it had helped to destroy the economy. Therefore we needed a new government, one that could look the public in the eye, one with the moral authority to take the tough decisions that will be needed if Ireland's economic health is to be restored.
Of course, not every minister in the last government, much less every TD, was responsible for the mismanagement of the economy. Some had been elected, or appointed to the cabinet, only after the fateful decisions that helped to expand the property bubble and overspend public money had been made.
Nonetheless, they were collectively part of a government that has completely lost moral authority and so they had to go even if they were individually responsible.
Similarly, not every member of the present Irish hierarchy was responsible for the disastrous handling of the abuse scandals in the past. Nonetheless, the hierarchy as a whole, with the exception of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, not alone has no credibility with the general public, it has no credibility with ordinary, faithful, Mass-going Catholics either.
This is why Fr Vincent Twomey for one has suggested that every bishop appointed prior to the return of Archbishop Martin to Ireland in 2003 should resign.
Combined with a reduction in the number of dioceses, this could also mean some bishops appointed after 2003 having to go as well because if a small diocese is amalgamated into a bigger neighbouring diocese, then the bishop of the smaller diocese would have to resign. (Or perhaps become an auxiliary bishop in the newly expanded diocese).
If the number of dioceses is reduced to say, 12, perhaps four or five of the present bishops would be retained, and seven or eight would be newly appointed.
The crucial appointment would, of course, be to Armagh. Unfortunately Cardinal Brady has lost an enormous amount of public credibility because of his involvement in the Fr Brendan Smith case as a young priest in the 1970s. His talk of being 'a wounded healer' simply doesn't wash.
Who would replace him? The temptation will be to appoint someone currently in their 60s, but if the best candidate cannot be found from among this age group the Vatican should consider skipping a generation, and seeking out someone in their late 40s or early 50s.
The usual argument against doing this is that such a person will then be in office for too long. In normal circumstances that argument would wash.
But we are in the middle of extraordinary circumstances and it is absolutely vital that the next Archbishop of Armagh is someone who inspires public confidence. It is worth keeping in mind also that Pope John Paul was made Archbishop of Krakow when he was only 43, and was elected Pope at the age of 58, which is young given that there is no retirement age for a Pope. So it can be done.
A new, more slimline hierarchy would have other advantages as well besides restoring some measure of public confidence. For one thing it would be much less unwieldy than the present structure which seems almost incapable of making tough decisions.
But it would also be vitally important that the newly appointed bishops be willing to speak out in their own voices without worrying about the Bishops' Conference.
The Episcopal Conference has produced a lowest common denominator effect among the bishops. Rather than taking strong, individual positions the bishops effectively make decisions by committee and we end up with tepid statements from the conference usually very late in the day.
Rome may worry that a radical restructuring of the Irish hierarchy will set a precedent for the Church elsewhere.
But in few other parts of the Church is there as deep a crisis of public confidence as there is in Ireland.
Of course, a radical restructuring of the Irish hierarchy will not on its own restore the fortunes of the Church here (if only it were that easy).
For a start there would be opposition. Without doubt the move would be condemned by the Association of Catholic Priests which hates practically everything that comes from Rome and seems determined to set itself up as some kind of alternative Church. The media will give the ACP line plenty of coverage.
Out of step
But apart from that, what the Church has to teach is often radically out of step with the times we live in and that isn't going to change in the foreseeable future.
However, this makes it all the more vital that we have a good and effective hierarchy. The Church is hardly the Church at all unless it is proclaming all that the Church has to teach to the best of its ability and with strong and effective leadership from the top.
If it continues on its present course, the Church in Ireland will soon be like the Church in Holland or Quebec, a faint shadow of what was once was (in the best sense) or could be.
That might happen anyway, but if the Vatican gives us a new, slim-line hierarchy, and a few members of that hierarchy at least are capable of giving strong, dynamically orthodox leadership, then we will have a fighting chance.