THE POPE has rejected plans to split a large English archdiocese into two smaller dioceses, because of fears over declining vocations.
Pope John Paul II turned down proposals to split the Archdiocese of Southwark. which covers the London boroughs south of the River Thames and the county of Kent, into a new Diocese of Kent and a Diocese of South London.
The Vatican's Congregation of Bishops also informed Archbishop Michael Bowen of Southwark that the proposals would not be reviewed for at least five years.
The decision by the Holy Father ends a process started almost four years ago, when a consultation of priests and laity in Southwark found that a small majority favoured the creation of two smaller dioceses.
Archbishop Bowen announced the Pope's decision last week at the Chrism Mass in St George's Cathedral, London.
Fr William Saunders, the diocesan spokesman, said that the decline in vocations to the priesthood had influenced the Vatican's view that it was not an "opportune time" to mate a 23rd Catholic diocese in England and Wales.
Fr Saunders said: "The Vatican thought that a diocese of just the [South] London boroughs, or possibly just an urban area, would be very small.
"They were also concerned about the decline in vocations. How do you man a new diocese when vocations are a problem?"
The archdiocese already has an auxiliary bishop, Bishop John Hine, based in Kent. The other area bishop, auxiliary Bishop Howard Tripp, is based in Sutton, Surrey.
Plans to split the archdiocese were first made more than a century ago by Southwark Bishop John Butt, the founder of St John's Seminary, Wonersh, Surrey, who predicted that the counties of Kent and Sussex would each eventually have their own Catholic dioceses.
According to the Catholic Directory, the Archdiocese of Southwark has 315 active diocesan priests, 184 parish churches and an estimated Catholic population of 387, 695.