Wilcannia-Forbes will remain a diocese after the Congregation of Bishops recommended against a proposal to dissolve the diocese and redistribute its parishes.
The future of NSW’s largest diocese has been uncertain since June 2009 with the resignation of its former bishop.
Since then, a series of apostolic administrators have been appointed to oversee the diocese, a responsibility currently held by the Bishop of Armidale, Bishop Michael Kennedy.
In 2010 a proposal to dissolve the diocese was rejected by local priests, who requested a permanent bishop.
The proposal was then revised in consultation with priests, parishioners, and diocesan agencies, including health and education, to divide the parishes of Wilcannia-Forbes between the new diocese of Wilcannia, to be administered by the Sydney Archdiocese, and the dioceses of Bathurst, Wagga Wagga, and Armidale.
That proposal was submitted to the Vatican in April 2012.
But Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, this week recommended that Wilcannia-Forbes continue as a diocese and advised that a bishop would be appointed in due course.
In a letter to Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Denis Hart, Cardinal Ouellet, believed to be a popular candidate to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, acknowledged desire of the faithful of the diocese to maintain the institutional identity of the diocese, “which has its own respectable history and traditions”.
Fr Paul Clark, chancellor of the Wilcannia-Forbes diocese and parish priest of Forbes, said the goal of the long process has been to determine “how to provide for the people in the diocese”.
“The uncertainty has been building up for 3.5 years now and people have been sad, so when the news came through, it was a decision and we remain as a Church.
“The reaction from the priests of the diocese and the people in general is one of relief that a decision is made, and great joy.”
He hoped a new bishop would help to “invigorate, to discover the way forward” for the rural diocese.
“The future of the diocese always rests with the bishop and his priests and the people; they’re the ones who discern the way forward, so one would hope that a new bishop would be the one to address that issue,” he said.
“It’s a difficult place; it’s not the easiest place to minister in, because of the distance.”
Basil Toohey is a parishioner of Parkes, and has lived in the region all his life.
“Everyone I’ve spoken to thinks it’s fantastic,” he said.
“It’s been very frustrating with the uncertainty of what’s going to happen to the diocese, and now we have certainty.”
Mr Toohey hopes the new bishop will be prepared for the challenges of a remote area.
The diocese of Wilcannia was established in 1887, incorporating areas that had previously formed part of the Bathurst diocese.
Further parishes, including Forbes and Parkes, were transferred in 1918 to form the diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes.
The diocese now covers more than 410,000 sq km, and incorporates 20 parishes, from Bourke to Deniliquin.
“It’s huge, and scattered; we cover more than half the state,” Mr Toohey said.