The Church can’t afford to lie back and do nothing, Bishop Michael Router tells Colm Fitzpatrick
At a time in Ireland when the Church is experiencing tumultuous and unprecedented change, visionaries who can move it in the right direction are needed more than ever.
The challenges are well-known and can’t be solved overnight – declining Mass attendance; the shadow of the clerical abuse scandals; a disillusioned youth; and a disenfranchised laity. The mission of the Church in response to these cumulative problems then, is firstly to learn from its mistakes, and secondly reignite a zeal for Christ in the hearts and minds of Ireland’s people.
This is no easy task, but Armagh’s new Auxiliary Bishop believes we should remain hopeful that the Church will continue to share a needed message to our broken society, while it itself learns and grows humbler.
“I think it’s facing an awful lot of challenges really, the primary goal of the Church is evangelisation, in other words, bringing the message of Jesus and the grace of the Sacraments to people, and that’s difficult in a kind of fractured society we live in now,” Bishop Michael Router told The Irish Catholic before his ordination over the weekend in Armagh’s St Patrick’s Cathedral.
“In the past, the Church was sort of a monolith in Irish society, there was very little competition I suppose for the attention of the hearts and minds of people, but now there’s a multitude of methods of communication, particularly, with social media being so popular. Particularly, you’ll have so many people that the Church is just one other voice in a mix of so many seeking to be heard. So, basically, you’re competing for that airtime in a sense.”
On May 7 of this year, Pope Francis appointed Dr Router – former parish priest of Bailieborough in the Diocese of Kilmore – to the Armagh role, assigning to him the Titular See of Lugmad. This is an ancient episcopal see in Co. Louth. Previous bishops who held that title included Bishop Thomas Winning, Auxiliary Bishop and later Cardinal Archbishop of Glasgow.
The appointment was a surprise to many, not least Bishop Router, who said that when the Papal Nuncio called him to Dublin to discuss matters about Kilmore diocese, the notion of assisting Archbishop Eamon pastorally and administratively in Armagh wasn’t even a passing thought.
“Certainly, we’re without a bishop in Kilmore at the moment and you know there’d be a certain amount of comment about who might possibly be the next bishop or whatever, and I suppose some people had mentioned it to me that possibly I would succeed Bishop Leo [O’Reilly], but I knew that wasn’t going to be a possibility anyway because the trend is now not to appoint bishops to their own dioceses.
“I certainly didn’t expect to be appointed anywhere else and I didn’t know that they were going to appoint an Auxiliary [Bishop] in Armagh. That was a big surprise,” Dr Router said.
The news meant that the Virginia-native would be uprooted from his Co. Cavan home – a place where he has ministered for three decades. Ordained in 1989, Bishop Router began as curate in the parish of Killinkere and in 1991 joined the teaching staff of St Patrick’s College, Cavan.
Following this, he was appointed chaplain of Bailieborough Community School, and later served as priest in residence in the parish of Castletara/Ballyhaise. Before his appointment by Pope Francis, he was parish priest of Killann – a role which he will fondly miss.
“I was very surprised to be appointed, I was very happily working away as a parish priest in Bailieborough in a place I felt very relaxed in, very much at home. Suddenly, you get the call and everything changes. You’re cast into a very different, more public role and you know I had no real training for this in a sense, you don’t know what to expect, what’s involved, so I mean it has been, the last few months, a huge upheaval in many ways.
“I’m going to be leaving my home diocese, I’m going to be leaving the priests and the people I have worked with for the last 30 years, it is difficult,” Dr Router said, adding that he’s excited about the challenge.
The word ‘challenge’ is perhaps the best word to describe what the Church is facing today, and in an era where its voice no longer holds a monopoly of influence, strident efforts are required to encourage people to listen.
“It’s a new experience for the Church in Ireland. There was a time in the past – maybe the 50s and 60s, even maybe in the 70s – that when the Church spoke on any issue people listened, there were very few other competing voices in a sense. But now, there’s a multitude of different opinions and voices,” he said.
“The Church has its authority – it comes from a different source; but it just can’t rely on that anymore. It just can’t lie back and say look we’ve spoke and that’s the way it is. It has to justify that in the public space.”
There’s a general respect out there for the Faith and how it contributes in the local area, to community, and the work that people of Faith do for those who are marginalised or forgotten”
Certainly, no greater demographic the Church needs to reach out to more is young people, who are deciding to disassociate themselves with the institution in bigger numbers, and at an increasingly younger age. It’s not only the Church who is experiencing a fallout in this regard but most large organisations, as the general public grows more cynical of unchecked power.
“I think young people generally are moving away from identifying with the large institutions whether they’re religious or social or political or whatever. Social media has in a sense given people the chance to do that, to kind of form their own like-minded groups in a sense through social media in the very different shared interests that they might have. I think it’s not just the Church that’s suffering from that in a way. All the major institutions would find that people distrust them to some degree,” Dr Router said.
He added that while the youth aren’t aligned with the Church in its corporeal form, there’s still a massive attraction towards the person of Jesus and the message he espouses.
“There’s a general respect out there for the Faith and how it contributes in the local area, to community, and the work that people of Faith do for those who are marginalised or forgotten. So, I think there’s respect there but it’s sort of at a local level.
“A few young people told me there at my farewell function when I was going away that they still have great time for the Faith, great respect for the Faith, and not to get discouraged by the lack of practice and all the rest.”
While it’s hard for devout believers to draw a distinction between the Faith and the Church, Dr Router said this perspective is understandable given how difficult it can be to come to terms with the historic abuses crises that damaged the country in an irreversible way. The generation of young Irish today have only ever experienced a Church in turmoil and apology, imploring forgiveness for heinous crimes.
It is unfortunate that we’re not supplying enough priests from our local area. Our local Church should be able to supply its own priests”
“There’s just that little disconnect with the institution and that’s for a lot of reasons, mainly the scandals; overcoming the hurt and the pain caused by abuse in the past. The Church really has to become a humbler Church all the time, it won’t ever go back to the position that it was in before. It must always continue now to work hard to heal those wounds and not to be making excuses, to acknowledge the damage that has been done to people’s lives,” Bishop Router explained. “If it does that, and if it continues to do that, then I think it will bring back the hearts and minds of people to some degree.”
Learning from its errors, Dr Router also said that the Church won’t attract people to its doors by preaching about “rules and regulations and strict morality”, but by focusing on relationship with God. By replacing this prescriptive method with a message about who Jesus was and how he is relevant to our lives today, those listening can garner a deeper appreciation of the Faith.
“The Church has to become more focused on developing the quality of people’s relationship with Jesus Christ, their understanding of him, their knowledge of him. People have a vague notion of Jesus Christ and who he was, but unless they have the educational opportunities to know more or the prayer experiences to get into a relationship with Jesus Christ, then they won’t really know who he was or what he stood for.
“I think if people are taught to love Jesus and have a relationship with him, then surely, they’d come around to seeing things. They’ll be converted from the inside out in a sense. Seeing things in the light of his teaching,” he said.
Priests, of course, play a crucial role as teachers and evangelisers in sharing this message, but with a significant decline in ordinations over the past two decades, it’s difficult to see what shape the Church will take in the coming years. In 2017, just six first year seminarians began classes at Maynooth, which is thought to be lowest number on record in the national seminary’s history.
Given this deficit, Bishop Router holds that a short-term solution can be found in Ireland’s multiculturalism, as clerics feel comfortable travelling from abroad to minister here.
“It is definitely sad that we’re not able to meet our own needs at present but I think once again, many of the priests who come from abroad, are bringing with them a new approach as well and that’s adding a certain freshness to the whole situation and by and large, they’re very popular with the Irish parishioners,” Dr Router said, adding that the culturally diverse nature of the Irish Church has been a “great thing”.
“It is unfortunate that we’re not supplying enough priests from our local area. Our local Church should be able to supply its own priests, we still have to think about that, we have to work on that, we need to pray about that, that vocations will increase.”
Certainly, the declining number of priests is a pressing concern, but the enduring solution to this problem is probably not solved by focusing on clerical figures, but by raising up the people of Faith who fill the pews every week. At one time the Kilmore Diocesan Director of Adult Faith Formation and Pastoral Renewal, Bishop Router believes that lay-led empowerment is necessary for the Irish Church’s survival.
The Church has to become more focused on developing the quality of people’s relationship with Jesus Christ”
“There’s just no way you could run a parish without having lay people involved. Once again, they need to be prepared for that. You just can’t throw people in at the deep end, there needs to be greater emphasis on adult education in the Church in Ireland to prepare people for those roles.
“Any young priest that’s coming out now to work in a parish, either from the seminary or coming in from abroad, that has to be an essential element of their ministry; that they would spend a lot of their time preparing adults to do the tasks that priests would have done in the past.”
Alongside being Ministers of the Word, members of parish councils and catechists, there has been a greater call for laymen specifically to become deacons. While ongoing discussion about the ministerial roles of women in the early Church has not resulted in any change concerning their eligibility for the diaconate, Dr Router thinks that their role must be enhanced in some shape or form, especially given how instrumental they are in its everyday running.
“I think there’s a conversation that needs to continue in that whole area definitely. At least 75% – three quarters – of the people who helped me out and ministered along with me in parishes were women, and I suppose three quarters of the people who worship on a regular basis in parishes are women, so they’re already extremely involved,” he said.
“We couldn’t survive without them. It just wouldn’t be possible. But I do think their contribution does need further enhancement and it needs more development if we are to survive into the future.
“You know, the Church has to follow the lead of its founder Jesus Christ and he didn’t choose women as apostles but chose women to be part of his inner circle and they were always there at the most important and crucial time in his life.”
Recognising that this is a “sensitive” issue as it could cause a certain amount of division, Dr Router said that restoring women to a position of influence in the Church where they are brought into the decision-making process is “something we have to deal with”, and for some requires overcoming fears.
It’s contentious issues like these that makes Bishop Router believe that there are “stormy seas ahead” for a Church that is transforming from a monolithic fortress into beacon of hope reaching out to those on the margins. Although waves will crash, the ship of Faith will continue on its journey, bringing on board all those pilgrims who are searching for purpose.
“That quest for meaning will be bring people back to the Faith as time goes by. It’s a difficult future but it has a future and there’s a lot of challenges and a lot of excitement there as well.”