An Irish cardinal could be a powerful symbol in a chaotic world

An Irish cardinal could be a powerful symbol in a chaotic world Archbishop Eamon Martin Photo: CNS

Shortly after his election to the papacy six years ago last month, Irish newspapers predicted with rare confidence that Pope Francis was set to appoint two Irishwomen to the College of Cardinals. The would-be Princesses of the Church were said to be former president Mary McAleese and Trinity College-based theologian Linda Hogan. At the time, I was interviewed on radio and I expressed the view that if Pope Francis was minded to appoint female members of the College of Cardinals, I didn’t think two middle-class women from the first world would be top of his list. In any case, I said I highly doubted that Francis was so minded.

I haven’t been proven wrong…yet.


Pope Francis has shown a keen interest in appointment members of the body that will elect his successor. He has held five consistories in just six years and is likely to hold another later this year.

Of the 123 cardinals now eligible to vote in a conclave just under half – 59 – have been appointed by the Argentine Pontiff. By mid-October, another nine cardinals – including Seán Brady – will have turned 80 and thus lost the right to vote. It seems a sure bet that Francis will create a fresh batch of cardinals before year end.

Assuming that neither Mrs McAleese or Mrs Hogan make the cut, the $64,000 question is whether or not Ireland will get a red hat. And, if so, who?

It is not at all a given that we will get a new cardinal. Pope Francis has shown a penchant for the existential peripheries when choosing new cardinals rather than respecting conventions. Several prominent dioceses once synonymous with the cardinalate do not now have a red hat while places like Papua New Guinea and Laos have cardinals.

Just 11 Irish bishops have served in the Pope’s Senate since Paul Cullen became the first in 1866. Of these, three have been archbishops of Dublin while the remaining eight were Primate of All-Ireland serving in Armagh.

After Leo XIII made Archbishop Michael Logue cardinal in 1893, every Archbishop of Armagh up to and including Dr Brady was a cardinal.

The appointment of Dublin’s Desmond Connell as a cardinal in 2001 surprised many observers who assumed that the precedent had been set that the red hat now belonged in Armagh. Many interpreted the elevation of Dr Connell as a sign of his personal friendship with Benedict XVI. This seemed to be confirmed with Dr Brady’s elevation in 2007.


Diarmuid Martin is due to retire just over a year from now. He has hinted that he might go earlier. Unless he is called to the Vatican for an appointment in the Roman Curia – a rumour which has persisted during his tenure in Dublin – his elevation to the College of Cardinals seems unlikely.

That would mean that Eamon Martin would be the obvious candidate if there is to be an Irish cardinal. At a time when the Church in Ireland is – in many ways – in decline, a red hat for Armagh might appeal to Francis in the same way as he chose Ireland to host the World Meeting of Families. In terms of the ‘new evangelisation’, it would be hard to think of somewhere more on the existential peripheries than Ireland.

There’s also the fact that in a year where – whatever way it falls – Brexit will deeply affect relations within the North, on this island and within these islands, a cardinal from a diocese which stretches across the border would be a powerful symbol of unity in a world that appears more and more divided and chaotic.

But one thing is for certain about this papacy, nothing is certain.

Michael Kelly is co-author of a new book with Austen Ivereigh How to Defend the Faith – Without Raising Your Voice – it is available from Columba Books.