Bishop Francis Duffy speaks to Paul Keenan of his new role in Ardagh and Clonmacnois
If, as he states a number of times during his interview with The Irish Catholic, Bishop Francis Duffy were not as open to the concept of learning as he is, it might reasonably be expected he would have by now become overwhelmed by events.
It was just this past July that it emerged that the priest and teacher of 31 years’ standing with the Diocese of Kilmore was Pope Francis’ choice to lead the neighbouring Diocese of Ardgah and Clonmacnois. By his own admission, Fr Francis had been waiting for a diocesan appointment within the annual announcements in Kilmore, so word from the Apostolic Nunciature of his elevation was a bolt out of the blue. During his address to the media on July 17, he spoke of his “shock” at the news.
However, in that same address, the bishop-elect gave the first hint of himself when he communicated his eagerness “to listen, to learn” from the people and priests of his new diocese – this in addition to his envisaged recourse to sat-nav in getting used to a diocese touching no fewer than seven counties! (The Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnois consists of nearly all of County Longford, the greater part of County Leitrim and parts of Counties Cavan, Offaly, Roscommon, Sligo and Westmeath. The diocese has a Catholic population of 71,806; 41 parishes; 80 churches)
One soon gets the sense that the ‘listening and learning’ Bishop Francis is equal to all challenges presented by his new reality.
Born into a farming family, the eldest of four children in Bawnboy, Co. Cavan in 1958, while Francis Duffy was born-and-bred within the Diocese of Kilmore, he was not, by his own admission, a ‘given’ for the priesthood. Throughout his school days, first at Munlough school in Templeport and then St Patrick’s secondary, the young Francis had a number of life-choice potentials as he came of age.
“I always had a personal faith and Jesus and God were important to me,” he recalls, adding that “the stories of Jesus were intriguing to me”.
Such elements came from a family that was no more devout than others of the time.
“I was never an altar boy, for example,” he says, “but we attended Mass and I had an uncle and grand-uncle who were priests.”
Priesthood was, therefore, just one of a number of possibilities presented to the young man.
How, then, did priesthood win out?
In the end, Bishop Francis says of his vocation, “I felt called to do this, and I am very happy with the choice I made. It has its stresses and difficulties but I am very happy”.
Swapping St Patrick’s Cavan for St Patrick’s Maynooth, Fr Francis Duffy was ordained for the Diocese of Kilmore on June 20, 1982 at St Mogue’s parish church in Bawnboy.
Learning was not at an end, however, and a return to Maynooth followed, resulting in Fr Francis gaining his H.Dip before a posting to the teaching staff of his old secondary school, where he taught history, Irish and religion.
(A love of history is clearly perceived as Bishop Francis colours his recollections of youth in broader elements of that subject, at one point relating how he and his family “regularly attended a barn church that was first constructed in 1795,” and “a church in a former workhouse”. Of his own parish church, he recalls it too with one eye to the historical: “A fine church in the gothic style.”)
Subsequent studies – at Maynooth and Trinity College Dublin – saw Fr Francis ultimately become principal at Ballinamore, Co. Leitrim, where he recalls 12 happy years in an environment where he had involvement with the town’s three educational institutions – St Fatima’s, St Felim’s and the Vocational school (a drive for one community school, Ss Fatima and Felim’s, begun during Fr Francis’ tenure, saw results in 2000).
Parish-based ministry came in 2008, when Fr Francis was appointed as resident priest in the parish of Laragh and duties as Kilmore’s Diocesan Secretary, gaining experience in such areas as finances, diocesan archives, and, given modern realities, child safeguarding procedures.
The new roles were taken in a characteristic stride, as the priest opened himself to new life lessons.
“Even as a teacher,” he explains, “even as a principal, a ‘Príomh Oide’ a first teacher, one must be open to learning.”
Bishop Francis was rewarded for such openness in his work in Laragh and with the connected communities of Carrickallen and Clifferna, communities Bishop Duffy remembers fondly as “vibrant and strong”. “They are people very engaged in the Church,” he explains, before adding a note of regret linked with his new post. “I am sorry to be leaving.”
In this, Bishop Francis’ words reveal another facet of his own nature which has strengthened his own priesthood over the years.
“I like being with people,” he says, “I can engage with people and I like listening to them.”
Acknowledging this as an important part of priesthood beyond the personal, he adds: “I hope to continue this as a bishop. Individual stories are life being told.”
Based on invitations issued and meetings already undertaken, it is evident the bishop’s hope will be realised.
“I have been made to feel very welcome by people of the diocese,” he states, revealing that even in these first days at the helm of the diocese, “I already have Masses and engagements timetabled.”
Such diary commitments suit the bishop however, who states a clear intention to “celebrate the local and local initiatives”.
Perhaps the most striking moment to date for Bishop Francis in seeking to learn about his new diocese came just a week before his ordination when he travelled to Longford to attend the open day at St Mel’s Cathedral where people came to see the progress towards reconstructing the famed structure since its devastating fire of 2009.
“I must have met 2,000 people on the day,” he says, adding that those he did meet gave him much cause for optimism in his new role.
“I heard of the previous open day, which was two or three years ago,” he explains, “where there were many tears for the damage that was still visible to the cathedral. This time, however, people were so upbeat, so filled with hope.”
Such a mood struck forcefully with Bishop Francis, who recalls clearly watching the television coverage of the burning building and witnessing how emotionally people were affected by the disaster.
“This was their place,” he says, “the place of their sacraments, a site they identified strongly with.”
Now, he says, “it is an exciting time”. Here, Bishop Francis gives due recognition to his immediate predecessor, “the wise and compassionate” Bishop Colm O’Reilly, who, he points out, “has been to the fore” both in ministering to the needs of the people of the diocese in the immediate aftermath of the fire, and in guiding St Mel’s to restored glory. Bishop Francis previously described Bishop O’Reilly as “Herculean” in his work since the St Mel’s fire and vowed to follow this example during his own tenure.
Such descriptions, it would be thought, however, make the process of succeeding an already popular bishop a tougher act to follow.
This might be so, but, in a case of fortuitous timing, Bishop Francis was announced for Ardagh and Clonmacnois in time for his participation this past September in the Pilgrimage to the Tomb of St Peter, a gathering in Rome for the world’s newly ordained bishops. Bishop Francis joined with Ireland’s newest prelates, Archbishop Eamon Martin and Bishops William Crean, Denis Nulty, Ray Browne and Brendan Leahy, for a nine-day gathering to be bolstered in their roles both by the universal Church and by one another.
“It was good to go and have that experience,” Bishop Francis reports, “and so good to meet with Ireland’s five other new bishops and others from around the world. It gave a real sense of the universal Church. Up to 20 from the Church in the East were there and told their stories; that was very enlightening.”
Given all Bishop Francis has said of his aspirations at the ‘local’ level in his new diocese, there is little surprise that he voices his joy at the guidance offered by Pope Francis during the bishops’ pilgrimage for the new prelates not to be “airport bishops”.
“He is the right man for our times,” Bishop Francis insists of his namesake, a man who, after their brief personal meeting in Rome, he describes as “a warm figure”. “He is like a good parish priest of the world and is in touch with how people are feeling.”
Regarding those contemporary – and contentious – Irish issues beyond the confines of the diocese which, as a member of the bishops’ conference, he must certainly face, Bishop Francis points to the recent ‘papal interview’ wherein the Pontiff stressed that “how we deal with issues is very important. The Pope, in language that was clear and compassionate has given us good example in that.”
He continues: “How the message itself is conveyed is crucial. After all, it is Good News we are preaching and teaching.”
As the listener he says he is, Bishop Francis insists that, in facing matters of concern, he will remain true to that characteristic. For example, when pressed to communicate his own specific vision for the future of Ardgah and Clonmacnois, he voices reluctance to do so at this point because such a thing must be shared with the people of the diocese. He stress: “Whatever I do or say, I will be consulting with other people. I believe in consultation in discerning the best thing to do.”
With that in mind, Ireland’s newest prelate stresses that his immediate concern is to “get to know the people of Ardagh and Clonmacnois”.
“It will take a while,” he concedes of his desire to meet with people and all ministries and committees they are involved in. “People are the life blood of every parish and so the diocese,” he states.
“I also want to visit each and every priest in the diocese, to sit with them and talk over a cup of tea in their own kitchens. This is the way I will learn of the concerns and hopes of the people and grow to know the diocese.”
Current projections for the reopening of St Mel’s cathedral coupled with the task Bishop Francis has set himself should ultimately see the bishop lead people he can by then call his own in the rededication of the great cathedral at Christmas 2014.
Until then, the cathedral remains closed for all ceremonies, including, unfortunately, the ordination ceremony for Bishop Francis, which had to be transferred to St Mary’s in Athlone.
“St Mary’s in Athlone is smaller than St Mel’s so I have not been able to invite as many people as I would have liked,” he says on this point. Eager to express his apologies to all, he jokes that “perhaps I’ll get less Christmas cards this year”.
Such an occurrence for Ardagh’s new leader seems most unlikely, of course, given the goodwill that has already been demonstrated by the faithful of the diocese, enabling Bishop Francis to point out that the run-up to his ordination has been marked by high spirits among those actively engaged in the ordination ceremony, many of them volunteers.
He references the many people who worked tirelessly to make the event memorable, from choirs to those involved in liturgies and completing invitations. “Lots of people,” the bishop says. “I am very grateful to them all.”