Maynooth: Looking to a renewed future

Maynooth: Looking to a renewed future Archbishop Eamon Martin
Ireland’s bishops have big plans for the pontifical university, writes Greg Daly


Buried near the end of a long and thoughtful address in Rome’s Irish Pontifical College a couple of weeks ago on the relevance of St John Henry Newman in Ireland today, Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin had something startling to say about St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.

“Recently the Irish Bishops held a special meeting to look at the future of faith education and education for future ministry. They have come up with an initial framework for a renewed vision of where this education should take place and of the role that St Patrick’s College Maynooth can play,” Archbishop Diarmuid said.

“Maynooth has the potential to play a new role in forming a future Irish religious culture,” he continued. “As it stands, however, it does not fulfil the basic acquirement of Church law to be a Catholic University as it effectively at the moment has only one fully active faculty. A university is by definition a place of universal learning.  The bishops however envisage a renewed and strong place for Maynooth in Irish Church life.”


There have long been rumblings in clerical circles that Maynooth is grievously understaffed, but to have the Archbishop of Dublin, a trustee of the college which lies in his own diocese, say this is startling. His fellow college trustee Archbishop Eamon Martin, Chancellor of the Pontifical University, however, says his brother bishop’s comments on the role of St Patrick’s in the national faith education landscape point to a number of key reflections going on at the moment within the Bishops’ Conference.

“Over the last two years anyway, we have been reflecting and discerning really about the future of seminary formation for Ireland, and also more widely than that about the future of first-class provision of philosophical, theological and pastoral formation for the whole Irish Church,” he says.

Early last year the Vatican followed 2016’s new Ratio Fundamentalis for seminary formation with Veritatis Gaudium, a broader document on ecclesial universities, and, Archbishop Eamon says, “those are documents which are inviting Catholic third-level theological institutions to reflect on their statutes and to reflect on their future”.

Even aside from directives for the whole Church the Church in Ireland has ambitions for Catholic education, he continues.

“Those would be the universal Church documents, but looking at it more nationally in terms of Ireland, with our hopes to try to produce a real first-class theological, philosophical, and pastoral formation in Ireland, the bishops are very conscious of this,” he says.

“If you just look across the water to Great Britain, the Bellarmine Institute in Heythrop had to be suspended in 2013, and many of their theological institutes and their colleges are facing very similar challenges to those that we have in Ireland,” he continues. “If you also look across Ireland, you have the situation that more and more of the third-level Catholic colleges are finding it hard to continue as centres of theological and religious education.

“So you can there’s a very broad canvass going on here: we would be very conscious that there are quite a number of third-level centres of theological formation in Ireland, and they are beginning to find the same sorts of pressures, both with the number of students coming forward – I’m talking about lay faithful coming forward – and also being able to staff all of these institutions.”

We have currently a pontifical university which we know now internationally we need to grow”

The challenge then, he says, is how Ireland can maintain a first-class centre for theological, philosophical and pastoral formation.

“Because if you look at what Pope Francis was saying and his dream of a missionary impulse to transform the Church at this time in the West, and to channel everything for evangelisation, then what we need to be doing in the Church in Ireland is looking to have a very top class internationally-renowned centre of theological, philosophical and pastoral education,” he says.

The challenge, as recognised by Archbishop Diarmuid in Rome, is that despite being a Pontifical University since 1896, Maynooth doesn’t currently match up to the rigorous standards outlined in Veritatis Gaudium.

“We have a pontifical university in Ireland, and my concern would be, and I think Archbishop Diarmuid and all of the bishops would be saying this too: how we can maintain an internationally-renowned pontifical university in Ireland, which would serve not only the Irish Church of the future – and by that we’re not simply talking about seminarians – we’re talking about the lay faithful.

“At the moment there are about 700 students attending the pontifical university, and of those maybe 10% would be clergy and religious from the various centres of formation in Ireland. The other 90% of our students attending the pontifical university are our lay faithful, and we would be very anxious to try to build and grow the pontifical university because in accordance with the international statutes, you need to be aiming to have three faculties.”


Maynooth, as Archbishop Diarmuid said in Rome, really only has one fully active faculty – Archbishop Eamon describes it as “ a very thriving theological faculty” – but the situation at the college going forward should not be reduced to this.

“We have recently taken the decision to grow the philosophy faculty. We’ve just appointed two new full-time philosophers to the faculty of philosophy, which means now that we would have six staff in the faculty of philosophy – three full-time and three part-time,” he says.

“We have currently a pontifical university which we know now internationally we need to grow,” he continues. “We’ve got a good theological faculty, the next step is to get a thriving philosophy faculty, so that’s why we’re employing these two new philosophers. And then thirdly we’re hoping later this year – although I wasn’t intending to announce this just yet but I might as well say it now –  the trustees of St Patrick’s College have given their support to the establishment of a centre for Canon law studies, which we hope will be the core or the kernel of a new third faculty for the pontifical University.”

Solid steps

These seems solid steps to take Maynooth forward, and Archbishop Eamon says that renewing Maynooth so it can have a key role in the Church of the future is vital.

“I would be very concerned if we were to let our pontifical University go, because it would mean that in these islands – in the whole of Ireland and Great Britain – there would be no pontifical university. I don’t think Rome would want us to let it go either, and my question is this: how are we going to form the next generation of academic lay faithful unless we have a quality Centre?”

Noting how in Maynooth there are three institutions “cheek by jowl” – the pontifical university, the secular university, and the seminary – the archbishop says the seminary is currently quite small, and that “for the future the trustees are aware that we need to be planning for something smaller from the point of view of seminary education”.

“In our recent reflection we also believed that we need to be looking at the possibility of perhaps even a new building in Maynooth, which would be more in tune with the demands for the future,” he says. “In terms of seminary education we’re talking about a smaller number of Irish seminarians, but we are also realising but the new ratio is calling on us to provide a centre for the ongoing formation of clergy.

“In other words could we have a place to bring our clergy to give them a year sabbatical, to avail of top-class philosophical theological and pastoral formation, so we’re looking at all three of these things at the moment, and we see in the Campus at Maynooth huge potential for the future.”

The trustees  realise, he says, adding that he thinks the staff at Maynooth are aware too, that a changing future for the Church in Ireland must mean a changed future for the national seminary and the pontifical university, as well as a changed relationship with the National University of Ireland Maynooth.

“We’re very blessed there in having a healthy sharing of the Campus between our institutions and Maynooth University,” he says. “I personally see that as being the potential for growth, where we would have our theological and Catholic philosophical centres sitting in the middle of a huge secular university providing the opportunity for dialogue between faith and Culture in Ireland.

“I would say that if any other country had that campus that we have there in Kildare, they would be saying ‘for goodness sake build it, rebuild it, reshape it, reform it’, and that’s what this bishops and the trustees of Maynooth are doing at the moment in their reflections.”


The recent appointments of Gavin Kerr [pictured right] and Philip Gonzales to the university’s philosophical faculty are genuinely positive concrete steps towards this, he says.

“The concrete steps are firstly to build your staffing for a second and third faculty, and then of course you must look for your students,” he says.

“Let me give you an example. This year in Maynooth we have our largest number of postgraduate students coming to study theology. Now we’re talking here about Maynooth beginning to become a centre for international postgraduate study,” he says.

“Our students at the moment are from Ireland, the US, Africa and Asia because Maynooth still has an acclaimed international reputation.”

In addition, he says, Maynooth has been building its lay theological staff because the Irish Church is no longer able to produce the number of priests who used to staff Maynooth. Instead, he says, the task now is to recruit high quality theologians from wherever they may come from.

“At the moment the staff in Maynooth has about 20 full-time theologians, and 11 occasional part-time theological staff, so we need to be building the resources in Maynooth for internationally-acclaimed theologians and many of these will come from abroad,” he says.

“We already have a number from the States, we have some from England, and the whole shape of the theological Faculty in Maynooth is changing, away from a situation where it used to rely on, say, priests from Ireland who had undertaken postgraduate study.”

Beyond staffing, he says, the challenge then is finding students.

“Everybody immediately thinks of seminarians,” he says, “but remember: the future of the pontifical university will be for our lay faithful.”

Pope Francis would be rubbing his hands at what we have in Maynooth! The Court of the Gentiles!”

There are a range of lay students pursing courses at the university even now, he says.

“The pontifical University is not only full-time theological students, but we also offer our certificate in religious education for our future teachers of religion in primary school, and our higher diploma for our teachers in secondary schools,” he says.

“Take for example some of our groups like Accord – the counselling accreditation is done through the pontifical university, the permanent diaconate is done through the pontifical university, spirituality certificates for spiritual directors who are from various spiritual houses around Ireland, and then of course the pontifical university outreach  programme.

“In Armagh, for example, we have an adult Faith theological formation program which is accredited from Maynooth.”


The future could well be bright, but one wonders how things could have reached so fragile a state that one of its senior trustees could publicly have said that it is not up to scratch. Ultimately, Archbishop Eamon suggests, this isn’t a helpful way of looking at things.

“If I look at the episcopal conference over the last 10 years it has been transformed,” he says. “We’ve now got a whole new range of bishops who are not looking back at the way things were. They’re looking to the future. I simply can’t afford to be saying the glass is half-empty, we must be looking to the future.

“Maynooth is a fully recognised pontifical University – the situation with regard to canon law and guidance has been the way it is for at least 10 years.

“Once the number of seminarians began to reduce, the number of philosophers began to reduce – because in the past the future of Maynooth was so tied in to the seminary presence there, but that model is now over.

“We’re now looking to a model of a first-class theological, philosophical, and pastoral formation which serves not just the priests of Ireland for the future, but the lay faithful of Ireland for the future.”


The question of official standards doesn’t necessarily come into this discussion, the archbishop says, pointing out that Maynooth is inspected and accredited as a pontifical university every year. The fact that the Church has revised its guidance on pontifical universities for the first time in 30 years merely brings home the urgency of the task the Irish bishops know they face here.

“Looking at that we recognise that if we are to retain our quality as a pontifical university we need to be developing two new faculties – which we’ve already done, we’re not starting from scratch,” he says.

“The other thing is that we would now see a big strength in being right next door to Maynooth University, so whilst we wish to have our Catholic theological Faculty in our own right, we also have a secular philosophical Faculty next door.

“Pope Francis would be rubbing his hands at what we have in Maynooth! The Court of the Gentiles! The opportunity for dialogue between Faith and culture – it’s there.”

Maynooth’s challenges are far from unique across Europe, Archbishop Eamon says, remarking that bishops across the continent encourage him not to lose hope for it.

“They’re all saying to me: don’t give up on your pontifical university – build it for the future, and that’s what we intend to do,” he says.

One might wonder whether the Church in Ireland can afford this, but here the fact that the Church in Ireland is not a single entity comes into play.

“We’re very blessed in Maynooth,” the archbishop says. “The reason for that is that at Maynooth we have been bequeathed essentially these buildings which are a resource.

“The property at Maynooth remains a very high-potential resource for the building of what our vision is. I would say we’re struggling in other places financially, but we are blessed in the sense that we have this campus we’ve had for 225 years.”

I’m not so certain whether the current old buildings in Maynooth are what we’re dreaming of in terms of the future housing of, say, seminary formation”

Maintaining that Maynooth is a going concern because of its location, its built heritage, and potential property development with Maynooth University, Archbishop Eamonn says significant discussions are ongoing around this.

“We’re currently in very high-level discussions with Maynooth University about the possibilities that we have to exploit the resources we have there in order to generate sufficient income to be able to do the exciting plans that I’ve been speaking to you about,” he says, adding that he is not sure that the future of the seminary lies in the existing buildings.

“I’m not so certain whether the current old buildings in Maynooth are what we’re dreaming of in terms of the future housing of, say, seminary formation, but they’re part of our tradition and we are very blessed that Maynooth university is our anchor tenant for a lot of the older buildings that we’re no longer using,” he says.

One way or another, Archbishop Eamonn says, the Irish bishops are committed to ensuring that going forward there will be a central place in the Irish Church for the campus at Maynooth, “which will include housing for our future seminary, which will include the first-class provision of philosophical, theological and pastoral formation in a pontifical university/international centre of theology, and which will also include a very close working relationship within that dialogue between faith and culture with Maynooth University”.