Bishop Brendan Leahy tells Cathal Barry about his tenure to date and his plans for Limerick diocese in the future
It’s been a whirlwind nine months for Bishop Brendan Leahy since his ordination as the 47th Bishop of Limerick in April 2013.
His appointment brought an end to a three-year wait for a new bishop for the diocese, filling the role vacated by Donal Murray in December 2009.
I caught up with the leader of the Church in Limerick just after the recent winter General Meeting of the Irish bishops’ conference in Maynooth, a gathering the new bishop is sure to become accustomed with in the years ahead.
When asked how he was acclimatising to his new diocese, the Dublin native admitted he was “still in the process of settling in” but has been “overwhelmed by the extraordinarily warm welcome” that the people of Limerick have shown him. “I am increasingly feeling part of the scene,” he said.
Bishop Leahy expressed that he was very happy to find that “the whole diocese is already very well formed in faith”. “It’s building on that now that matters,” he said.
The bishop noted the very many significant developments for Limerick at present, in particular Limerick being the City of Culture for 2014 and the implementation of the new regeneration strategy as part of the 2030 Economic and Spatial Plan.
“There are an awful lot of factors coming together to make it a very energetic moment with huge potential. It’s exciting to be there and, of course, a challenge as a Church to discover what we have to offer,” he reasoned.
In an attempt to rise to that challenge, Bishop Leahy has spent much of his time to date visiting parishes, which has provided him “the opportunity to meet people very informally in an everyday environment”. He also sees this as an ideal way of getting to know the priests of the diocese and to get a sense of the various pastoral groups within Limerick’s parishes and their “vital work”.
On the second day of these typically two-day visitations, Bishop Leahy usually celebrates Mass for the parish before meeting children in the local schools, which he said has been “a wonderful opportunity to engage with the youth of the diocese”.
Bishop Leahy is also delighted by the frequent invitations he has received to various events in the diocese and maintains “there is a clear interest in the bishop as person in Limerick”. “I have been very impressed by that. It’s encouraging,” he said.
One particularly memorable event Bishop Leahy recalled was the second annual ‘Right of Place Second Chance’ Mass, at which he thanked the victims of Church abuse for hanging onto their faith.
Bishop Leahy said it was a “moving occasion” as he was dealing with people who had “journeyed very profoundly”. “Hearing their testimonies and seeing that they still want to believe and be part of the Church despite being wounded was very moving,” he said.
During that Mass he praised abuse survivors for coming together as part of the Church’s “ongoing process of reconciliation”.
The bishop suggested that the victims of abuse among the congregation could take some consolation from the efforts being made to ensure that “the horror of institutional and clerical abuse will never be allowed to happen again”.
“Across the world, across our country, these lessons are being learned. Measures to protect the most precious are being implemented. We have come a long way in that regard and will not relent in our efforts to ensure that this diocese does its best, especially for the youngest members among us,” he vowed.
On a personal level, transitioning from diocesan priest and university professor to bishop has been a “huge change” for Bishop Leahy.
“The level of busyness is incredible; there just isn’t enough time in the day. There is no end to the range of things that come up on a daily basis,” he explained.
Bishop Leahy has been quite vocal during his tenure to date, making frequent media appearances that, to his “pleasant surprise”, have been very well received.
He is “absolutely convinced that communications are vitally important for the Church going forward”. “Dialogue is the name of the game now. In dialoguing you listen, you hear and you offer, and I feel media opportunities are excellent ways to engage in that,” he told me.
Recognising he is now at the end of his “first lap” as bishop and facing into a New Year at the helm of one of Ireland’s major dioceses, Bishop Leahy revealed he was now in “planning mode”. The bishop has already re-established the Priest’s Council of the diocese and it is his intention to “meet more frequently with them in the year ahead”.
It is also his intention to set up a Pastoral Council of the diocese, which he assured me, would “represent all the various elements of diocesan life”. Limerick’s pastoral outreach is something the bishop also intends to give “more direct attention to” in 2014. He has already appointed an Episcopal Vicar for Pastoral Planning, Fr Eamonn Fitzgibbon, who has “extensive experience” and will guide the diocese on the matter.
Pope Francis has clearly impacted on Bishop Leahy’s vision for Limerick, and he admits the Pontiff’s encyclical Lumen Fidei, exhortation Evangelii Gaudium and many ground breaking interviews are providing him with “much food for thought for the future”.
Considering the “next step” for the diocese, Bishop Leahy has been impressed by the Down and Connor’s ‘Living Church’ diocesan pastoral plan and revealed he may do something similar in Limerick this year. He also hinted, however, that he “may go another route”, something he needs to “explore a little further first”.
Bishop Leahy says his focus is now on “sharing the Good News and evengelisation and how best to go about that in the diocese of Limerick going forward”.
The bishop is unconcerned by the current shortage of vocations in what will inevitably lead to a shortage of priests, but rather sees it as an opportunity to return to the “true essence of Christianity – journeying together”.
Now that Bishop Leahy’s ‘first lap’ has come to a successful end, he will be looking for others to join him for the journey ahead in 2014.