Charting a fresh path

Charting a fresh path Archbishop-elect Dr Dermot Farrell (L) and Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin (R) speaking to the media at the announcement in Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Dublin.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin is widely – and correctly – credited with taking decisive action on the issue of child abuse.

It was a point noted by his successor Dermot Farrell last week when he said: “Archbishop Martin accepted the leadership of the diocese at a challenging time in 2003. Since then, he has provided forceful and unambiguous leadership, especially in safeguarding children where he took courageous positions”.

Dr Martin should be rightly proud of his achievements and the transformation in Church culture that he helped usher in. He has borne the burden and heat of the day and deserves a long, happy and healthy retirement.

To a sceptical Faithful angered and dismayed at their Church’s slowness to act, Diarmuid Martin was a breath of fresh air. His contribution to the Church’s now evident culture of putting child protection front and central is beyond dispute and he has built up considerable capital in that sphere.

His leadership on the much-needed reform of the Church in Ireland is less discernible. Despite the fact that Archbishop Martin has been one of the most senior Irish Churchmen in the early decades of the 21st Century, there is precious little by way of blue sky thinking when it comes to the reform of the Church. The archbishop has more often resembled a casual observer on Church affairs rather than one of the men with the levers of power.

A new chapter

The appointment of Archbishop-elect Farrell signals a new chapter for Dublin and for the Church in Ireland at large. He is a man of huge energy unafraid of embracing reform and new ways of doing things. The Pope’s appointment to Dublin is the most important episcopal choice since Archbishop Eamon Martin was appointed as Primate of All-Ireland. As vice-president of the bishops’ conference, Archbishop-elect Farrell will have an important role in setting the mood music for the next phase in the reform and renewal of the Church on this island.

He is likely to hit the ground running. In Ossory, he has achieved more in just three years than many bishops do in their entire episcopal ministry. He has acted decisively and shown strong leadership where it has been necessary.

Dublin now needs some of his characteristic efficiency. For all his many talents, Diarmuid Martin would be the first person to admit that he lacks the ability to unite people around a vision. Many of the priests of Dublin are disillusioned and Dr Farrell will have to bring healing where there is hurt and sometimes alienation.

He will also have to act decisively and move forward with necessary (if painful) pastoral reforms that may see many parish churches close. If the history of the Church teaches us anything, it is that what seems unimaginable at one moment becomes the seed of reform in another moment.

Financial management – a particular skill of Dr Farrell’s – will be vital to get the diocese bank on a good footing. As this newspaper revealed in December, Dublin is running desperately short on funds with some predicting that there is just enough money to pay priests for two more months.

Many Dublin priests share the perception that vital and necessary pastoral planning has been long-fingered. They speak about a culture of ‘keeping the show on the road’.

Priests and other bishops often speak with frustration about Diarmuid Martin. They speak of a man who is second-to-none in diagnosing what is wrong with the Church. A man who has a keen eye for what has gone wrong and what should be done better, but curiously has no prescription for exactly how to do things better.

But, then perhaps Dr Martin had one great mission in him – bringing about accountability for the cover-up of abuse. And in that regard, he has certainly left the Church a lot better than he found it and everyone should be grateful for that.

Reforma Agenda

Archbishop-elect Farrell will have to embrace a much wider reform agenda. Faith is fragile. There’s so much talk of Church reform and Church renewal that doesn’t lead anywhere. Many committed Catholics are frustrated that that there is still no real role for lay voices in Church decision-making.

The mission that Archbishop-elect Farrell will have to undertake is to help chart a vision of the future that all people of faith can get behind and find their voice in a Church that is reformed and renewed. He will need to be a man of both vision and action. He will need to be someone who cannot just talk about reform, but who can walk the walk. This is a defining issue for the Church, and if it does not get it right the institution will continue to decline.

He could do worse than breathing new life in to a plan that was shelved by Dr Martin – the idea of convoking a diocesan assembly or synod that would honestly and courageously discern the challenges facing Dublin and, by extension, the wider Church in Ireland.

It would have to be handled prudently and manage expectations, but it could be a moment to re-imagine how we think of the Church.

Such a process – listening attentively to the Word of God in the way that Pope Francis has spoken so passionately about – could be a fresh step in becoming the co-responsible and participatory Church that the Second Vatican Council imagined in the 1960s.

In his apostolic exhortation, Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis proposed that the real reform that is needed in the Church is transcending traditional divisions and “finding other, better ways, perhaps not yet even imagined”.

Archbishop-elect Farrell has shown in Ossory that he has the courage, strength and determination to find better ways forward. I wish him a fair wind and God’s blessing.