A shepherd with the ‘smell of his sheep’

Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan tells Cathal Barry he plans on putting his pastoral experience into action

The new Bishop of Waterford and Lismore was experiencing “qualms of conscience” speaking to The Irish Catholic from a golf course ahead of his episcopal ordination on Sunday.

But after a particularly “busy” and “emotional” Easter, this reporter assured the then Fr Alphonsus Cullinan that nobody would hold it against him.

The annual priests’ golf outing in Athlone turned out to be a valuable excursion, in fact, providing the soon-to-be bishop with an opportunity to meet some of the priests of his new diocese.

“I’ve met five new Waterford lads that I didn’t know before so it’s one way of getting to meet some of the guys straight off the bat,” he said.

Born in Lahinch, Co. Clare, which boasts one of Ireland’s best courses, golf is in this bishop’s blood.

The break was also a welcome reprieve from what has been a particularly hectic period of time for the formerly Limerick-based parish priest.

“My appointment as bishop was a bolt out of the blue. I had no idea it was coming. It was a huge shock and life has been a roller-coaster ever since,” he said.

“As well as that, it has been a very sad Easter because I had to say goodbye to all the parishioners. I was quite emotional. It signalled a real break for me with Limerick diocese. That’s the past as it were. I have to look forward now and my new home is Waterford and Lismore.”

Before proceeding, one thing that necessitated clarification was what the bishop-elect would be called once ordained. “Well there is a question,” pondered the priest known to most as ‘Fr Phoncie’.

“I suppose it will have to be ‘Bishop Phoncie’,” he said.

Given this cleric’s devotion to St Faustina, it was particularly poignant that his episcopal ordination would fall on Divine Mercy Sunday. He himself has a first class relic of St Faustina and prays the chaplet regularly.

“The message of Divine Mercy, that no matter who we are, what we are or what our past has been, that the Lord will welcome us back, that his mercy knows no limits, is very apt for today,” he said.

Born into a family of 10 in 1959 to Christy and Rita who are now “looking down from a higher vantage point”, one would expect the bishop to have some links to Waterford.

However, his closest link to his new diocese is the fact that his father was trained as a teacher in the De La Salle College in Waterford City.

“Aside from that I have to admit I have very little links with the county,” the bishop said.

Although originally from the ‘banner county’, Bishop Phoncie’s family moved for “employment and schooling reasons” to Limerick when he was just four years old.

There he attended the Salesians for early education, John F Kennedy National School and the Jesuit-run Crescent College Comprehensive for his secondary education.

Father’s footsteps

Following his father’s footsteps into the teaching profession, Bishop Phoncie then attended Mary Immaculate College, Limerick qualifying as a primary teacher in 1981, and taught for six years in Castleconnell.

The future bishop also worked part-time for four years with the Bunratty Castle Entertainers before going to Spain where he taught English for two years in a school in Valladolid. 

As an entertainer, Bishop Phoncie acted as a butler, the only man among 12 women, all dressed up in costumes partaking in medieval banquets.

“It was actually good training,” he reasoned. “Voice projection if for nothing else and standing in front of a crowd doesn’t do one any harm.”

Bishop Phoncie’s Catholic-infused education clearly had an influencing affect on him. He’s quick to point out however that “you can be educated not only within the walls of a college”. Most of one’s education happens in what the Lord puts before us in life,” he said.

At that time, the would-be bishop was preoccupied with sports like soccer and the performing arts like musicals.

However, “being away from the influences” while teaching in Spain, he able to think for himself.

“I was with a group of people who were good Catholics and took their faith seriously.

“My folks of course had taught me so much about living the Christian life but, in a more structured way, friends in Opus Dei in Spain taught me a lot about prayer, meditation and spirituality.

“Little by little the Lord showed me that priesthood was the way for me,” the bishop said.

The then teacher returned home and between 1989 and 1995, studied at the national seminary in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, where he completed an STL (Licentiate in Theology) before being ordained a priest of the Limerick diocese by the late Bishop Jeremiah Newman.

His first appointment was as curate in St Munchin’s Parish Limerick city where he ministered for just one year before undertaking a five-year stint as chaplain to the Regional Hospital in Limerick.

“I would have to say that was probably the best five years of my priesthood in the sense that you are dealing with and learning from the sick every day. It was all priestly work. Visiting the sick, anointing, hearing confessions, consoling families and being with people,” he said.

“Working there was a wonderful learning experience but it was also very tough, especially when you are involved in the heart-breaking situation of children dying. If I learned one great lesson there it was never feel sorry for yourself. To visit the sick and see what they were suffering makes you realise all the blessings that you have in life.”

2001 marked the beginning of three “wonderful” years for Bishop Phoncie studying for his doctorate in moral theology in the Alfonsianum in Rome.

On his return to Ireland in 2004, he was appointed to a chaplaincy position again, this time serving the youth at Limerick Institute of Technology.

“It was great, I enjoyed it immensely. I love working with young people. They have great enthusiasm and tremendous good will,” he said.

The “generous” college holidays he enjoyed at that time also provided the opportunity for the future leader of the Church in Waterford to partake in numerous pilgrimages abroad.

He brought groups of young people to walk the Camino de Santiago, to Lourdes and even to World Youth Day in Madrid in 2011.

“I am a great fan of all those pilgrimages. They are really valuable spiritual experiences,” he said.

The new bishop is planning to bring a group of young people from his new diocese to World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland, next year.

Bishop Phoncie is very critical of the media, which he feels is “hostile” to the Church, for misleading some young people about faith.

“The media in Ireland is quite hostile to the Faith. There is no doubt about that. That’s not being negative. That’s just being realistic,” he said.

Being sold lies

“When you take young people out of that environment and put them into a place where they can express themselves more clearly, where you can talk to them about all things spiritual you can get so much across of the truths of what Christ is proposing to us.

“Christ is not here to complicate our lives, but to show us how to be truly free,” the bishop said. “I believe that so many of our young people are being sold so many lies which don’t lead them to fulfilment or happiness,” he added.

Bishop Phoncie’s most recent posting was as parish priest of Rathkeale in Co. Limerick, where at least half of his parishioners were members of the travelling community.

“It’s a challenging community. There are differences of opinion, but there’s a lot of common ground as well and in fact the one place people do get together is in the church,” he said.

“It has been challenging in a way but has been marvellous too. I encountered tremendous friendliness and good will from the people there. It was only when I was leaving that I realised just how much time everyone had for the Church and its priests.”

Much of Bishop Phoncie’s time in Rathkeale was spent visiting and reaching out to marginalised members of his community, both travellers and settled alike. A bishop “with the smell of the sheep” in the mould of Pope Francis if ever there was one.

The now bishop regrets in a sense that his three and a half years at the helm in Rathkeale was cut short. He had plans to set up a youth café and get a men’s shed up and running.

“We kind of half got there but maybe the men after me will keep it going, please God,” he said.

Despite leaving behind some unfinished business in Limerick, he is “looking forward immensely” to taking on his new role “on the other side” of Munster.

So what of his plans for Waterford and Lismore?

“Undoubtedly the first thing is for me to be holy and faithful because everything will follow from that. I can’t come with a set agenda because it mightn’t be what the spirit wants in the diocese,” he reasoned.

Bishop Phoncie does plan, however, on getting around and paying all the parishes in his diocese a visit.

“I would be hoping to meet a lot of people of faith and prayer and see where the spirit is leading us,” he said. “To find out what are the things that need to be done?”

The welfare of his priests is another top priority for this bishop.

“I want to meet every priest and have a cup of tea in his kitchen. To listen to him and hear where he is at and what we can do for him. So many priests really feel themselves inundated with so much stuff coming at them,” he said.

The need for vocations to the priesthood and to religious life is also high on Bishop Phoncie’s agenda.

“There is nothing that can give a parish, a priest or a bishop more of a boost than to see young people that are prepared to say ‘yes’ to God,” he said.

Bishop Phoncie is acutely aware that his new title carries much weight and that he will be called upon from time to time to uphold the Church’s teaching on controversial issues, such as in the debate ahead of the upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage.

The new prelate certainly doesn’t shy away from offering his opinion on the matter.

He believes the bishops’ joint pastoral statement The Meaning of Marriage “hit the nail on the head”.

The document states that the Church regards the family based on marriage between a woman and a man as “the single most important institution in any society,” and that an attempt to re-define the nature of marriage would “undermine it as the fundamental building block of our society”.

Reiterating this stance, Bishop Phoncie insists that marriage between a man and a woman is “crucial” for society as a whole.

“It is crucial for the wellbeing of children and every child deserves to have the love of a mother and a father,” he said.

In this context, the newly elevated bishop thinks it “strange” that Seamus Heaney’s sonnet When All the Others Were Away at Mass has been recently been chosen as Ireland’s favourite poem of the past 100 years.

The poem is the third sonnet in an eight-sonnet sequence in which Heaney remembers with deep fondness his dead mother.

“The poem is essentially about a family and especially about a mother’s love. If there is to be adoption in a same-sex relationship between two men, the adopted children would never know a mother’s love.

“I find it strange that on one hand we are saying that our favorite poem is about a mother’s love and then at the same time we are considering providing for same-sex marriages.

“Putting that into the highest law of the land where it will be enshrined there for good seems to me like an utterly dangerous thing to do and could be detrimental to some children,” the bishop warned.

Beyond the referendum in May, Bishop Phoncie said he is “looking forward with great enthusiasm” to working with the people of Waterford and Lismore, especially with those struggling with their faith.

“I am going to try to be a faithful bishop. I know that the Holy Spirit is going to be there with me all the time and please God with the Spirit’s help we will do great things together in Waterford. It has to be a joint community effort,” he said.

“In a time when there is a lot of confusion and chaos out there, when there are a lot of people of faith just barely hanging on, I think the Lord is asking us to be faithful Christians.

“The Lord gives us our hope and I am very hopeful for the future.”