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Hope for the Church in Ireland

St. Patrick’s Cathedral Armagh


Greg Daly - published on 09/11/14

Catholic journalist discusses challenges and prospects for new archbishop of Armagh.

Michael Kelly, a native of Co. Tyrone, was appointed Editor of The Irish Catholic in October 2012. He joined the newspaper, Ireland’s oldest and best-selling religious paper, in 2004 as Rome correspondent before returning to Dublin in late 2005. He is a frequent broadcaster on religious and social affairs for RTÉ, BBC and other television and radio stations in Ireland and farther afield.

What will be the biggest challenges facing Archbishop Martin in his new role?

I think there are many challenges facing Archbishop Eamon Martin. Chief amongst these are the fact that he inherits a Church that is bruised and demoralized as a result of the clerical abuse scandals, but also a dramatic drift away from faith by many people, including people who describe themselves as Catholics. A secularizing thrust, that took many decades in other countries, has materialized in Ireland in a matter of years.

What does this mean in practical terms?

Archbishop Eamon faces the immediate consequences of what is called the vocations crisis. The average age of an Irish priest in continuing to rise – currently early- to mid-sixties – and the number of aspirants for the priesthood entering seminary each year is stubbornly low. Within his own archdiocese, he will face the challenge of constant reorganization since structures remain substantially unchanged from a time when Mass attendance was very high.

There’s also the fact that many priests feel demoralized. They have often looked on helplessly as the Church has struggled to find its place in a very changed Ireland. They are longing for someone who can articulate a cohesive vision of the Church’s future.

The Archdiocese of Armagh crosses the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. Do the two jurisdictions offer different challenges?

In the Irish Republic, there is increasing political pressure to future liberalize laws on abortion. There is also a referendum on same-sex marriage scheduled for next year.

In Northern Ireland, the establishment by the devolved government of a new Education and Skills Authority (ESA) presents a potential threat to the governance and ethos of Catholic schools since the Church will no longer have a direct role in the management of the Catholic schools or the recruitment and selection of teachers.

The Northern Government has also expressed a preferential option for integrated education and the First Minister, Peter Robinson, has made no secret of the fact that he would like to withdraw funding from Catholic schools. This is unlikely to happen since the main Nationalist parties in the Government – who largely represent the Catholic community – would oppose the move seeing it as nothing other than naked sectarianism.

Will Irish Catholics be encouraged by the appointment of Archbishop Eamon?

Archbishop Eamon has spoken about his desire to lead a ‘humble renewal’ of the Church in Ireland. This will resonate well with people.

Bishop Brendan Leahy has described his succession as the beginning of a new era. I think, for many people, they will be initially energized by the change and the potential to move in to a different space in the Church.

How will Archbishop Eamon seek to engage with his flock?

Archbishop Eamon has spoken about the vital work of discerning charisms within the Church in Ireland and the need for laypeople to be more engaged in the mission of the Church not as a substitute for priests, but by virtue of their baptismal call. There are many laypeople working hard in parishes and communities across the country who will take heart from this.

The discernment of charisms and formation in what exactly this means will also be crucial. There is a tendency in Ireland for laypeople to become clericalised, almost as if they need to become mini-priests in order to have an authentic role within the Church. The reintroduction of the permanent diaconate at this time of flux has exacerbated this in some parts. In the Diocese of Killaloe, for example, lay volunteers in parishes have launched a campaign against the permanent diaconate, fearing that it will reduce the role of laypeople within the parish. This will have to be handled sensitively.

Archbishop Eamon says Pope Francis has motivated him to think of ministry in a missionary key. Why might this be important in Ireland?

Ireland is experiencing a crisis of faith. Many people – 84% – still choose to self-identify as Catholic when asked, but, many of these people live their lives as if God does not exist. Ireland is a textbook example of a land in dire need of the new evangelization. Many Irish people have heard the message of the Gospel and are familiar with Christ but they do not know him nor have their hearts been touched, moved or transformed by an authentic encounter with Jesus.

Are there hopeful signs in the Irish Church?

There are hopeful signs: many young people – infused with a Christian spirit – do great voluntary work. There is a thirst for the Church’s social teaching and many young people appear to share the Irish missionary zeal. A challenge will be joining the dots and helping people see that Christian charity goes hand-in-hand with a personal encounter with Jesus and his Church.

Archbishop Martin has been Cardinal Brady’s coadjutor bishop for the last year and a half; what has he been doing?

Archbishop Eamon has been lucky in having the 16 months that he has had as coadjutor. This has allowed him to get to know his diocese very well and also to see the challenges and opportunities facing the wider Church. He has used his time well, engaging with parish pastoral councils, the diocesan pastoral council and many lay movements and positive initiatives around the country. He has played an affirming role and has a natural affinity with young people. I have seen him walk in to a room and be visibly energized by the presence of young people. When he tells them “you are my hope” it is not a cliché – he feels it and believes it.

I think he has an innate trust in the goodness of young people and their thirst for meaning. His role as an educator has meant that he is not afraid to challenge young people. He understands well that their young minds are searching for something radical, that they have often not experienced Christianity as that radical thing. I think he will challenge young people. It’s interesting, he often recalls how the most formative moment of his life was at a youth Mass in Galway with Pope St. John Paul II, when the Polish Pontiff told young Irish Catholics in a booming voice “something else is needed!” This is a theme Archbishop Eamon returns to frequently. I think he will challenge young people to use their faculties and abilities to embrace a mature faith.

How does Archbishop Eamon think young people might do this?

He is aware of the disastrous pastoral strategy that saw the Church expect Irish culture to evangelize our young people and teach them Christianity. He realizes that relying on a traditional Catholic culture is no longer possible, that, at best, it brings a sentimental attachment. His constant call is for young people to become “intentional disciples.” To be convinced by Christ and for Christ and, so, to convince others.

What can Archbishop Eamon bring to the Church in Ireland?

I think Archbishop Eamon can be a unifying force within the Church in Ireland. He is orthodox and a stout defender of the Church’s teaching and place in the public square. But he is not overly ideological. I think he will be able to bring people together in the Church and dialogue and build bridges with people who have a different vision of the Church.

If you could give Archbishop Martin any advice in terms of what he should do, what would you say? Any ideas on how people might be introduced to the Gospel?

I love the line from Mother Teresa where she says she has learnt the paradox of life, love until it hurts then there is no more hurt only love…I would say reach out, evangelize until it hurts…push the limits, get out constantly to the public square, to where young people are, expect nothing, but keep reminding them of Christ who is waiting for them. Keep challenging society…keep reminding people that something more is needed.

And, above all, remind Catholics that goodness and beauty are what attract people to our way of life… This country is charged with the beauty of God, our fellow non-believers are beautiful people made in God’s image and likeness…we must not be naive about the challenges nor under-estimate the Church’s enemies, but if we retreat into a them-and-us mentality we have reduced the Gospel to ideology… We win hearts by goodness and the beauty of Christ and his Church.

I would also say that care for priests needs to be prioritised: many priests feel isolated, alone, let down, not part of a brotherhood or presbyterate. They need to know that their bishops love them, that they care for them and have a passion for their welfare.

Archbishop Eamon must also try to find a space within the Church for those who have felt alienated, betrayed and abused. Spiritual healing is necessary: those who were abused by priests often lost their faith; this is a deep sadness for the Church that their most precious gift could be taken. Many survivors I speak to feel this acutely: they want to draw close to Christ through the Church and must be given every assistance in doing so. Others have walked away, but we must be ready to draw near to them if and when they need that and they must know this.

Greg Daly covers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.

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