Cardinal Seán Brady prepares to exit stage

Ireland’s primate reaches retirement age

Cardinal Seán Brady turns 75 on Saturday and, so, is obliged to send his resignation to Pope Francis. Few expect the resignation to take effect immediately, however, it’s believed that the cardinal will be relieved of his duties before Christmas.

When his resignation is accepted, it will mark the end of an often turbulent and tumultuous time for Seán Brady as Primate. As President of the Irish Bishops’ Conference since 1996, he has led the Catholic Church in Ireland during some of its darkest days. Dr Brady will surely breathe a sigh of relief as he steps down.

The past 25 years have been a period of monumental crisis for Catholics in Ireland as they have watched their Church and its leaders grapple to come to terms with the dreadful clerical abuse crisis.

Most fair-minded people acknowledge that there has been a sea-change in Church leaders’ approach and that real progress has been made to ensure that the Church is a safe place. While there have been admirable approaches at reconciliation and healing with victims, they will continue to carry the wounds of their abuse for the rest of their lives. And the Church in Ireland will – and should – continue to carry that wound.

Heavy price

The Church has and will continue to pay a heavy price for the failure of those in leadership to deal with the crime of abuser-priests. In 2010, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI reminded the hierarchy in his letter to Irish Catholics that their failures “have obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing”.

It’s an indictment as devastating as it is true.

“All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness” Benedict XVI told the bishops and there can be little doubt that the bishops’ moral authority is in tatters and the Church’s reputation has suffered incalculable damage. Again and again during last year’s abortion debate the Church’s cover-up of abuse was highlighted as a means to undermine the Church’s stance on the protection of human life. Only new voices, not tainted by the scandals, can challenge this and try to regain moral authority.

People close to Cardinal Brady point out that he has been instrumental in ensuring that the Church is now an example of best practice when it comes to child safeguarding. There can be little doubt about this. Nevertheless, Dr Brady has emerged as a potent reminder of a past where the Church failed to handle abuse properly. His stubborn resistance to calls for his resignation in the light of his 1975 failure to report the notorious abuser Brendan Smyth to the police has often distracted from the much-needed work of Church renewal.

Friends and foe alike point out that Seán Brady is a very nice man. I can’t disagree: I have criticised the cardinal’s failures on numerous occasions and he has never been anything other than a gentleman to me. The challenges facing the Church – many of which he did nothing to create – have surely taken a heavy toll on him.

Cardinal Brady leaves behind a Church in Ireland in serious need of reform and renewal. The clerical abuse scandal has only been the most egregious example of the Church’s failure to live up to the Gospel call. The great call to reform that was Vatican II (1962-65) was largely ignored in Ireland. The tide of secularism that gripped much of Western Europe was ignored by the Church in Ireland in a vain hope that it would never sweep this island. Catholic education has focused on structures and institutions rather than an authentic encounter with the person of Christ. The new evangelisation, for which Ireland is crying out for, has not been a priority. The Church in Ireland has, in many instances, failed to make its timeless message relevant to the women and men of a different generation.


The practice of the Faith has plummeted, vocations to the priesthood and religious life have reduced to a trickle and many priests acutely feel the low sense of morale and are uncomfortable about encouraging young men to consider a vocation.

But, while the challenges are immense, there is much to be hopeful about. More than two million Irish Catholics go to Mass every week. In parishes and communities across the country, there are green shoots of renewal. Many people are finding fresh heart through the study of their faith, pilgrimages, prayer groups and scriptural reflection groups. A new generation of bishops, not tainted by the scandals, is emerging and can speak with credibility and courage about the Faith. Many young people are experiencing Catholicism afresh through events like the Youth 2000 summer festival and the Michaela Foundation camps. In the Republic, 84% of people still choose to identify themselves as Catholics. In the North, the number of people describing themselves as Catholics is growing marginally rising from 678,462 in 2001 to 738,033 (40.8%) in 2011.

The overwhelming majority of young couples still choose to get married in the Catholic Church while most parents still choose to baptise their children. What does this tell us? It says that the attachment to the Faith has deep roots. Being Catholic doesn’t mean what it used to mean to many young Catholics, but it does mean something to them. The challenge for the Church is to activate and stimulate these roots. If it does, it will flourish once again as a humble place where people find God, if it doesn’t it will decline further.

There’s everything to play for.