Five years after, Christmas hope is rising once more

Christmas 2009 was a painful time for the Church in Ireland, writes Joe O’Brien

Joe O'Brien

What Catholic can forget the shock of the news headlines on Christmas morning five years ago? It was almost as if the sky had caved in on the Catholic Church. ‘A drama of Shakespearian proportions’, as one commentator remarked.

 The Church dominated all three news headlines. First, the two auxiliary bishops of Dublin had submitted their resignations in the aftermath of the damning Murphy Report into clerical abuse in Dublin. Secondly, Pope Benedict had been physically attacked and knocked to the ground at Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican. And thirdly, St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford had been destroyed in a fierce overnight fire.

After the trauma, bitterness and outrage following the Murphy Report a month previously, the standing and morale of the Church in Ireland also seemed in ruins. But the confluence of events on Christmas Day 2009 really rocked the already-shattered Catholic faithful.

The midnight offers of resignation by Bishops Eamon Walsh and Ray Field came after a four week battle among the hierarchy about how to deal with public demands for multiple episcopal resignations. Bishop Donal Murray of Limerick and Bishop Jim Moriarty of Kildare & Leighlin had reluctantly stepped down days before Christmas. Now Dublin’s auxiliaries had finally acquiesced to the perceived wishes of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin on Christmas morning.

To lose four bishops within a fortnight was truly catastrophic for the Irish Catholic Church, and even further resignations were being sought.

The attack on the Pope at Midnight Mass was also shocking. True, there was an attempted assassination on his predecessor Pope John Paul II in 1981, but a Christmas assault on the elderly Benedict XVI was an apparent indicator of the global anger that was raging against the Catholic Church.

And nature itself seemed to be conspiring against the Church. The 160-year-old St Mel’s Cathedral was gutted in the blaze along with many historical diocesan artifacts. People wondered was the fire caused deliberately, another sign perhaps of the hostility against the Church. Bishop Colm O’Reilly immediately pledged to rebuild the edifice, but it seemed like a pipe dream.

When Benedict was attacked on Christmas Eve, it was a woman with psychiatric problems who jumped over a barrier and lunged at him in the aisle of St Peter’s Basilica, so no sinister plot was involved. She grabbed the Pope’s vestments and pulled him to the ground for a few seconds. A French cardinal broke his hip in the attack. Benedict was shaken, but uninjured, and was able to deliver his Urbi et Orbi  blessing later on Christmas Day.

In February, the Irish hierarchy was summoned to the Vatican for discussions about the Murphy Report. Several months later, to much surprise, it emerged that Pope Benedict had not accepted the resignations of Bishops Walsh and Field, apparently because they may have been offered under duress.

The Pope’s refusal was criticised in Ireland and was seen as undermining the authority of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. However, both auxiliaries have since maintained low media profiles despite their workloads and the archbishop’s stature has suffered no obvious damage.


There is a glorious sequel to the Longford fire. Gardaí quickly established that arson was not responsible. Bishop O’Reilly began a five-year multi-million restoration project. Although the diocese was without a cathedral for the ordination of Dr O’Reilly’s successor, Bishop Francis Duffy in 2013, the Cathedral of St Mel re-opened this Christmas with RTÉ broadcasting the Masses across Europe.

Five years after the terrible Christmas of 2009, the Catholic Church is still dealing with the issue of clerical sex abuse. The new Primate, Archbishop Eamon Martin, said he had no intention of drawing a line under the issue, as that would be unfair to victims. Survivors of abuse would have to carry it with them for the rest of their lives, said the new archbishop, and he would carry it for the rest of his ministry.

However, as Longford’s Cathedral rises from the ashes, Pope Francis is gaining global admiration for his unique style. Irish bishops are hoping the charisma of Francis will be an important catalyst in bringing ‘fresh heart’ and rebuilding the Church of the future and that the events of Christmas 2009 will become a distant memory.


 Joe O’Brien is a former news correspondent with RTÉ.