Contemporary topics about the Irish Church now revolve around questions about our declining priesthood, the efficacy of clergy formation, and the integral role of the laity. Although these discussions often begin and end at the armchair, the newly-appointed Bishop of Ossory is hoping to put his words into real action.
Dr Dermot Farrell, who was ordained as bishop on Sunday, is excited about the challenges his new position entails, and is encouraged by the “wealth of support” that he has received from his new parishioners after being told that Pope Francis asked him to become bishop.
“I suppose I felt it would be a challenge. I was a bit shocked. Initially, when you get that question put to you, the first thing is shock. I suppose also, one realises the enormity of the challenge that faces you in saying yes to that,” Bishop Farrell told The Irish Catholic, adding that the shock later subsides and the reality of the situation kicks in.
“After the initial shock you become more relaxed and you also realise the wealth of support that is out there. I have received nothing but support from both the people and priests of Ossory and that’s an enormous source of strength and encouragement when you’re facing up to those responsibilities and challenges that lie ahead,” he explained.
In spite of these challenges, he said that he’s not apprehensive at all about his new role, but actually has feelings of “mixed emotions” after having to leave his home diocese of Meath which he has been actively part of for almost five decades.
“You know, when you’re leaving a diocese that you’ve been involved with as a priest for 38 years and if you add in the years from when I was a seminarian, and I was associated with the diocese, that’s 46 years. That’s a long time and that’s a lot of relationships. When you’re leaving that’s certainly a sad time.
“You build up a network of relationships and people that you meet along the journey of life, and you won’t necessarily lose all of those but there is a certain fracture that takes place when you’re moving to a different part of the country.”
Bishop Farrell studied in Maynooth from 1972-1981, and was ordained a priest on June 7, 1980. He later taught Moral Theology in Maynooth and was President of St Patrick’s College from 1996-2007.
Becoming a priest was something that he thought about “occasionally”, he said, and this became more focused towards the end of secondary school.
“Like most students in secondary school one has to make a decision about where life is going to take you. So, it came towards the end of my secondary school days, that decision became as I said more focused. And I went with that decision. And went to study for the priesthood.
“Obviously, one has to keep re-evaluating that decision. There are points along the journey where you accept various ministries – those are always kind of milestones where one has to reflect on the decision,” Dr Farrell said.
“There are spiritual directors and others who help you along the way.”
His family played a formative role in developing his faith as did the culture of the time which extolled the role priests as an integral part of society.
“They were a family who prayed. So, that obviously had a dimension because vocations don’t come out of a vacuum. They come out a prayer life, a faith life and that was certainly part of my own family,” he said. Bishop Farrell added that he was “inspired” by some priests, and would have “looked up to and admired” them because of their pastoral work in the parish.
He pointed out, however, that support for the priesthood has now dwindled in our modern times largely due to shifts in the culture about religion and the role of priests today.
“In those times there was a different cultural matrix in terms of a support for priesthood and support for someone who declared themselves to be a candidate. I do think that’s changed now, I don’t think there’s the same level or universal level of support for candidates when they go for the priesthood now,” he explained.
He was particularly excited about his own priestly ordination in 1980, whereby he could finally put into practice all that he had learned as a seminarian.
“I looked forward to getting involved in parish ministry because I had been eight years in formation. Suddenly the day arises when you’re out of formation and you’re at the coal face. The training up to that is to a certain amount theoretical but then you actually have to go out and do it,” he said.
“It’s like if you’re training to be an engineer in university and then suddenly you find yourself out standing on the side of a road. You have to put in what you have learned over a period of time into actual practice.
“That takes time, you grow into it. It takes a bit of time to go out, even the idea of getting used to or celebrating mass, dealing with sick people, visiting the hospitals that doesn’t all just come, one has to develop a style. That takes time.”
With his ongoing vocational journey, he is enthusiastic about now coming to Ossory to meet the parishioners and getting to know the diocesan priests on a more personal level. Dr Farrell said that he has received “nothing but support” from the people who work for the diocese and those he has already met.
He is, however, aware of the new challenges that he will be facing as he now has responsibility for the 42 parishes in Ossory as opposed to only his Dunboyne parish in Meath.
“You are, I suppose, launching out into the deep to use that Gospel phrase”, he explained.
He added that on top of his administrative and governance roles, that he also has a pastoral responsibility in caring for the priests as they are “a big asset” of any diocese.
His first port of call as the newly appointed bishop will be to visit the various parishes and the priests and the many children in the parish who will be making their Confirmation soon.
“That will involve visits to these parishes to meet the parents of the children being confirmed. I’ve met all the priests already, well most of them, but I will be meeting them individually,” he said, adding that as bishop he will have further opportunities to engage with the parish and people during events such as the anniversaries of churches and other pastoral functions.
He believes that one of the main challenges that he will have to encounter and address is trying to proclaim the message of the Gospels in a culture that is apathetic or even hostile towards it. Although in previous decades people in Ireland were more welcoming of what the Church taught, he believes society’s interests have shifted.
“The challenges facing Ossory aren’t very different from the ones facing Meath or any other diocese as well. The first challenge is that the whole landscape has changed over the years since I was ordained. Culturally, there are great challenges in trying to preach the Gospel in the world and give credible witness to the Gospel,” Bishop Farrell explained.
“You have to develop the prayer life of priests, people and parishes in the years ahead. That’s a challenge.”
He noted that the challenges that he faces in Ossory are no different from those faced on a national level. As the primary purpose of the priest and bishop is the proclamation of the Gospel or “evangelising the people”, the challenge doesn’t change.
With his background in Maynooth, another central issue which he hopes to tackle is the promotion of religious vocations. Although the bishop has some responsibility for this role, he said that all of the faithful have a collective duty to build and encourage potential candidates for the priesthood. This input in necessary because the Church cannot survive without priests who will administer the Eucharist.
“That’s a very particular responsibility, not just on the bishop but on every Catholic person to promote vocations to the priesthood. Ultimately, if you don’t have priests, you have to say, well what sort of a Church have we? Do we have a Church at all if we have no priests?” he said.
“The Eucharist and the Church are intimately connected but priests and the Eucharist are obviously interconnected as well. You try to envisage a Church in Ireland which has no priests, what have we got then? We don’t have a Church.”
He mentioned that the reason why the priesthood has declined in numbers is complex, and that there’s “probably a multiplicity of reasons”. He outlined some examples such as the lack of people practicing their faith, diminishing family sizes, as well as the historic sexual abuse scandals.
“You could probably list 10-12 factors if you went into what’s actually affecting vocations. I don’t think it’s any one factor,” he continued. In order to fix this problem, we need to create a “culture of vocation”, he said, and that this is a priority for every person.
“You can’t shovel the responsibility of the vocations onto one person, be that a vocations director or one priest or one bishop. It’s a challenge to the whole Church.”
In light of the popular criticism today that the ongoing formation of priests is not paid enough attention in the Church in Ireland, Bishop Farrell hopes to implement structures that will help priests to continue and strengthen their vocational and pastoral development. Without this intervention, the vocational life can become static and fail to keep up to date with new research and teaching.
“If you look at any profession, there’s always ongoing formation, ongoing training for people whether they’re accountants, or solicitors or whether they’re judges or nurses, and priests shouldn’t be any different”, he explained, adding that you receive your initial formation in the seminary but that there needs to be ongoing formation.
“You wouldn’t particularly want to go to a doctor that hadn’t studied since medical school in the 1950’s – I’d be very sceptical. There has to be ongoing formation, things are changing all the time.”
He knows this from personal experience as a young seminarian, when he had questions about his vocation, but through pastoral guidance, came to trust and be comfortable with his decision. “I largely thought that it was the way forward but there were times when you did reflect on it. Not that there were major doubts that arose. You always have questions. You try to answer those questions in the discernment process. The discernment process brings better clarity to yourself.
He hopes to speak with priests and try to decide what the best way is of implementing ongoing formation such as study days. There are a number of ways to do it, he said, and so “there’s no size that fits all. We would need to look at different ways for that to be achieved”.
Alongside promoting the priesthood, Bishop Farrell also said that he wants the laity to have a more integral role in the parish as they provide wisdom and support. When asked whether lay leadership is going to increase, he responded:
“We should have lay leadership anyways, maybe the shortage of priests has forced us to take that more seriously. Lay involvement and lay participation is critical in terms of parishes,” he said, noting that his previous parish Meath would not have been able to function without them.
“People are willing to step forward if they are asked. I’ve never had any difficult in getting people to assist in financial administration in the parish or the pastoral dimensions of it. You have to ask them and if you ask from them people are always willing to give their time and their expertise.”
With the World Meeting of Families (WMOF) taking place in Ireland this August, Bishop Dermot Farrell is hopeful that Pope Francis will visit. Although this may create some sort of difference, he firmly holds that renewal does not happen overnight. What is really needed is an active community of believers who can bring forth their gifts in their own dioceses so that effective change can occur.
“One visit will certainly help a little bit, but these things are often short-lived. You have to build on them and that renewal has to be built from the ground up”, he said, noting that it would be “foolish” to think that Pope Francis will solve all of the problems in the Irish Church.
“It has to be done parish by parish, diocese by diocese. Certainly, Pope Francis will give some impetus, but it won’t be instant renewal. It takes time and it takes effort. It takes commitment and it takes programming,” he said.
Dr Dermot Farrell summed up his hopes about being Bishop of Ossory by saying that he looks forward to meeting the challenges living down there and being part of the diocese. By building and creating renewal he wants to, “strengthen the parishes to be great centres of faith where people will want to come and worship and pray together as a faith community.”