Missionary lessons from Africa can’t easily be applied in Ireland, Clogher’s new bishop tells Greg Daly
For years a recurring cry from Ireland’s Association of Catholic Priests was that the country’s bishops were being appointed from outside their dioceses, as though they were outsiders imposed without suitable local consultation. As former papal nuncio Archbishop Charles Brown said some years ago, while there has been a tendency in the Church over the last 15 years or so to appoint bishops from outside dioceses, this had never been an absolute rule.
Whatever the overall policy might be, it’s hard to imagine the ACP complaining about the appointment of Carrickmacross parish priest Msgr Larry Duffy, a Monaghan-man to the core, to head his home diocese of Clogher. Warm words of welcome greeted the announcement of the appointment in December, with parishes where he’d served issuing statements about his gentleness and how parish life had flourished around him.
As his predecessor Bishop Emeritus Liam MacDaid remarked, the priests and people of the diocese would have good reason to remember the day of the announcement as a day they learned that Pope Francis had favoured them by naming “one of their own” as bishop.
Originally from Magheracloone, Bishop Duffy has served across the diocese since 1976 when he completed his studies at Carlow’s St Patrick’s College and was ordained to the priesthood in Monaghan’s Saint Macartan’s Cathedral, where he was ordained bishop this weekend.
“I’m from the south of the diocese, from the parish of Magheracloone, and I have worked in many places in the diocese. I have worked in Enniskillen, in Castleblaney, Monaghan, Africa for a few years, Ederney, Clones, and in recent years in Carrickmacross,” he tells The Irish Catholic.
Born to the late Thomas and Elizabeth Duffy in 1951, the future bishop grew up with a sister and three brothers, one of whom, Barry, died two years ago.
“The home, I suppose, was like the surrounding homes, it had its blessings and its weaknesses. There was nothing perfect about it but there was faith in it, there was love, and we were valued as children,” he says. “We got a chance of some education at second level, maybe at a time when some others didn’t, so we’d appreciate that.”
Deeply established in the diocese as he is, and having spent three years as Clogher’s vicar general under Bishop MacDaid up to his 2016 retirement, one would think he’d not need to get his feet under the desk in the same way as so many of the country’s newer bishops have had to do.
“Well there’s certainly an advantage of being from the diocese from the point of view of knowing people, and even knowing the roads, and knowing the priests and a lot of parishioners,” he says. “And being part of groupings in the diocese in Bishop McDaid’s and Bishop (Joseph) Duffy’s times I’ve discussed things.
“So I’ve a fair knowledge of the diocese for the last many years, what has been priorities and what has been discussed at various levels, so I would say yes, there’s a big advantage from that point of view. The priests know me and very many people know me. It’s a very definite plus,” he says.
He’s taking the reins at a time of dramatic change in Clogher, as the diocese gets used to dramatic changes introduced by diocesan administrator Msgr Joseph McGuinness, reducing the diocese’s number of Sunday Masses from 113 to 96 following a series of meetings of clerical meetings cross the diocese, and August’s publication of ‘The future mission of our parishes’.
That letter began with an admission that urgent changes were needed in the diocese, and that while it would have been better to postpone changes until the appointment of a successor to Dr MacDaid, time was passing and immediate challenges needed to be faced. Commenting on “the serious and challenging situation” facing the diocese, it detailed how Clogher’s 37 parishes and 85 churches were served by just 58 priests, 28 of whom were over 65, with just seven being under 50 – and it could have added that just two men are currently in formation for the diocese. With 88,000 Catholics to be served, Msgr McGuinness was surely right to say that Clogher was only at the beginning of a necessary process.
Asked how he feels about taking the helm at this time, Dr Duffy points out that Clogher’s far from alone in facing the kind of difficulties Msgr McGuinness identified.
“Most Irish dioceses have experienced and are experiencing a shortage of priests in comparison to former times – Clogher is no different,” he says. “So obviously with less priests and an aging group of priests certain decisions have to be made.”
His familiarity with the diocese should help him in impressing the diocese’s reality upon parishioners and to listen to their concerns, he adds.
“I probably have a better chance now to get a group together and go round parishes and chat to people and listen to them and let them know the situation,” he says. “Truth is, in a lot of places people are very much aware of their own parish and the surrounding parishes, maybe not too much about the diocese at large. There’s need to do some work there, to listen to people and hear what their views are.”
Key to tackling the diocese’s problems are working for clerical vocations and encouraging the laity to play a more active role in Church life, he says.
“Obviously both of those are important – to encourage vocations to priesthood, the diaconate, religious life, important to support people who have made that commitment, many of whom now may be getting on in years, and it’s equally important to encourage the lay people to take much more ownership of parish involvement and parish life than previous tradition.”
Alluding to the four years he spent in the Kenyan diocese of Kitui between 1998 and 2002, where he led the building of a new church and supported religious communities in setting up schools, he says he had seen evidence of such local ownership in his time as missionary priest.
“I would have seen a bit of this in my time in Africa,” he says. “It’s a different situation there. You just can’t transfer what was in Africa to here – different backgrounds, different cultures – but there is need for a greater ownership so far as we can work on that or encourage that for lay people in terms of their own parishes.
“There probably needs to be an invitation for people to be ordained as deacons, an invitation for people to commit themselves and train as parish workers, and in years ahead maybe we’ll see a Church where there’ll be a good deal more involvement by the local people,” he says.
An obvious question then is how people might be prepared for this, and Dr Duffy says the first step is establishing what they think they need.
“Well obviously first of all one has to approach people and listen to them. Listen to what they feel is their need, the parish needs, and then working together to see how do we respond to that. At that stage then we go on a course of action the people have hopefully bought into.”
It’s a common observation nowadays that Ireland, like the rest of the West, has become mission territory, and so it seems worth asking Dr Duffy what he has learned from his missionary experience in Kenya, and why he embarked on that particular adventure.
“I suppose the idea why I went and what I experienced was somewhat different,” he says. “I was at a stage in mid-life where I felt I needed some time to reflect, time for myself after being very busy as a young priest, and I felt Africa might give me that chance.
“In fact, I went out there and became just as busy as I was at home – maybe a mistake! But I did learn a lot from Africa, and enjoyed it immensely. I probably have learned a few things that could be considered here, but Africa’s a very different place to Clogher,” he says.
“I think all missionary activity, whether at home or abroad, starts with Christ and the invitation to get to know him, to hear his invitation to be involved, to be missionary. That’s theory, but fact as well. God is the one who makes the seed grow: we’re the ones who are invited to plant the seed. It’s possible to encourage people to plant the seed,” he explains, adding that the seeds must be taken care of, not simply planted.
At the same time, he stresses, it’s not a simple matter of applying African methods on Irish soil.
“I still go back to Africa quite often, and the African way of doing things, particularly in the rural area I was in, is very different to modern Ireland,” he says. “So you cannot simply impose what one saw there on modern Ireland but there are ideas and there are approaches to learn something from.
“One of them would have been certainly the involvement of people in their own church community, what they brought into it. They were very much the ones who kept the Church going, and sowed the seeds more even than the priests.”
Speaking of missions, bishops’ mottos and crests often express what they see as being the essence of their missions, and Dr Duffy’s motto ‘God is love’, coming from the First Letter of St John, focuses sharply on what he sees as at the heart of Christianity.
“Well, I would have always felt, no matter what the situation is in life, that God is very close to us, and that God wants the best for us, and that he invites us to reach out to Christ to get the best, and that God will never abandon us. God so loved the world he sent his Son, and that’s the gift that we have received,” he says. “That’s the gift that we can share, to make people know about this God, invite them to follow him, invite them to know him. That’s part of the Christian message for me.”
His crest, meanwhile, speaks to his deep love for his roots and the life he’s lived. Stained-glass windows on one part of the crest echo church windows in Carrickmacross designed by Harry Clarke and his studio, rowan berries and leaves are a tribute to Clogher’s first bishop St Macartan and to the Trinity, and a Masai shield and crossed spears pay tribute to Dr Duffy’s Kenyan links.
Black and white backgrounds are nods to his native parish of Magheracloone for whose Magheracloone Mitchells GAA side he used to play, with a blue background is in honour of Monaghan itself.
While all of Monaghan lies within the Diocese of Clogher, the diocese also encompasses most of Fermanagh, as well as portions of Tyrone, Donegal, Cavan and Louth. The quintessential border diocese, not merely is the diocese split almost evenly between two jurisdictions, but it has three parishes divided by the border.
It seems reasonable then, given concerns repeatedly expressed by northern bishops and clergy, to ask what concerns are felt in the diocese and what challenges it faces as Brexit gets closer and closer and the prospect of a hard border grows ever nearer.
“Well, Brexit and the detail of it will generally be settled one way or another by politicians. All I can do is encourage people to do their best to come together,” Dr Duffy says.
“We have had a border there for coming up on 100 years. We have lived with that,” he continues. “It has been difficult at times, but they have always coped and they’ve lived and they have learned to do that, and I’ve no doubt that Christians will still do that and that other people will do their best to continue to get the best type of life they can despite the fact that they’re living on a border which can be difficult.”
His message, then, is basically to encourage people to keep going, and not to give up?
“And to encourage politicians that this is a major issue and to do their best for people,” he says. “That’s why they’re elected.”