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Hope for the Church in Ireland

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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.

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