Reforms of the Church in Ireland are underway, and they will intensify, Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo tells Michael Kelly
The Christian roots of relations between the Irish and the Holy See go back to 431 when Pope Celestine I sent Palladius as Bishop of Ireland. St Patrick was to steal his thunder, but relations between Rome and Ireland go back a long way.
The latest bearer of that torch is Nigerian-born Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo, as Papal Nuncio the personal representative of Pope Francis in Ireland and effectively the Vatican’s ambassador.
While for most people Christmas brings thoughts of going home, the life of a diplomat much like that of a missionary is about being close to the people one has been sent to minister to.
The archbishop will spend Christmas in Dublin, but he will have thoughts of home since his birthday falls just a week before Christmas and the Nigerian priests and religious based in Ireland are planning to organise a celebration.
“I think this is the first time we are meeting actually since I arrived. Well, meeting as a group – but, of course I’ve met them here and there, but this is the first time I will meet them as a group, officially or formally”.
When we meet at his residence-cum-office on the Navan Road – the only diplomatic mission on Dublin’s northside – he is conscious of the role of Irish missionaries in his own journey of faith that has brought him as Papal Nuncio.
“All through my life, from birth until my priestly ordination – at one stage or the other – I have always been associated with Irish missionaries: bishops, priests and religious”.
The archbishop recalls to The Irish Catholic how before he was born his father was praying for a boy and an Irish SMA missionary Fr Greg McGovern encouraged him to make a novena to St Jude Thaddeus.
“At my birth, he was there to give me a blessing. I do not know what he prayed for. He gave me the name Jude Thaddeus. It was he who baptised me and I received my First Communion from his hands,” the archbishop recalls with pride.
Irish Sisters of St Louis prepared him for his First Holy Communion and Irish Holy Ghost fathers were also a key part of his faith formation that put the young man on the road to priesthood.
At times, Dr Okolo’s mission to Ireland seemed almost inevitable. Upon his ordination as a bishop, he adopted part of the coat of arms of Irishman Bishop Joseph Shanahan, the first bishop in Eastern Nigeria.
Dr Okolo believes that Irish missionaries to Nigeria were so successful in spreading the faith because they started from the human need. “They began with education, and the health services, and then when the people got settled, then they said, ‘Now we’ll tell you about God’ “And so for the people it was humane…it is a nice missionary pattern, which we see in Christ also. Christ gave the people something to eat. The disciples said, ‘send them away’.
“But, Jesus says ‘no, give them something to eat’ and then when the people were satisfied, they say, ‘ah, this man seems to be a Saviour. We should listen to him’.”
My major reason for becoming a priest is to make a difference in the world. To help people get to know and experience the goodness of God”
While papal nuncios have many formal responsibilities – particularly in Ireland where he is dean of the diplomatic corps – Archbishop Okolo is clear that he is first and foremost a priest.
“My major reason for becoming a priest is to make a difference in the world. To help people get to know and experience the goodness of God”. He says that his “desire was that I would work in a parish setting or as a formator in the seminary – so far, none of it has been fulfilled!”
A young Fr Okolo first went to Rome in 1984 to work as personal secretary for the well-known Cardinal Francis Arinze and to open a new Vatican section for dialogue with new religious movements.
“While I was there in Rome, one day I was called to the Secretariat of State by the then Archbishop Justin Rigali, the President of the Pontifical Academy for Diplomatic Studies. He told me they had decided that I should enter for the diplomatic service.
“I asked to consult my bishop; he replied that my bishop had already given his consent!” Archbishop Okolo recalls.
The training to be a Vatican diplomat lasts four years and includes Canon Law, international law, languages and – of course – diplomacy.
In 1990, his first overseas posting was to Sri Lanka and then on to Haiti and then to Trinidad and Tobago.
The latter appointment proved a fascinating one for the freshly-minted diplomat since the mission covers several countries including French Guyana, Guyana, Suriname, Curacao, Aruba, Saba, St Lucia, St Vincent, Grenada, Grenadines, Barbados, Martinique, Guadalupe, Antigua, Barbuda, Virgin Islands, Bahamas, Kitts and Nevis, Turks & Caicos, Bermuda.
From the Caribbean it was back to Europe and stints in Switzerland, Liechtenstein and the Czech Republic before Australia beckoned.
After the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Australia, Msgr Okolo received his first appointment as Papal Nuncio to Chad and the Central African Republic. After five years in Africa, it was back to the Caribbean and to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
In May 2017 Pope Francis named him nuncio to Ireland replacing Archbishop Charles Brown. After two years in Ireland, what are his impressions?
“Everyone loves the Irish people and myself too. I have known them from birth, and I have always deeply appreciated them sincerely. They can also be challenging. The advice is: love and appreciate them as they are. They are cordial and warm hearted.
“They do not hide; however, they do not seem to appreciate criticism in public. They can laugh and smile and joke over their faults. And they would expect you to do the same; not to take life too seriously. Tomorrow will be a better day, perhaps without or in spite of the rain,” he says.
The archbishop has noticed a directness with Irish people at times. “In a minute, they already go into conversations that relate to profound matters. You are not sure whether you have already reached a deep level of trust, or whether you have to wait, to know them well.
“For a person like me, at that level, I prefer to listen and learn,” he says.
He won’t be tempted into an indiscretion. “By principle, I like to put emphasis on the positive. So, I will not dwell on negative issues, styles and attitudes. No one is perfect. However, the Irish still excel in goodness, in many ways, in spite of the changing world, the changing epoch,” he says.
Archbishop Okolo arrived just months before Pope Francis was due for the World Meeting of Families. He says he did not feel daunted at the prospect of such a visit so soon into his mission because much of the organisation was out of his hands.
“What made it daunting and demanding was the fact that it was very brief. And so, everything and everyone had to be packed into 36 hours,” he recalls.
Dr Okolo said that there were so many requests for the Pope to participate in various events around the country including a parish that wanted Francis to join them for a full Irish breakfast.
“The time was simply too short for everyone and everything,” he said.
I put it to him that the visit was, in some respects, underwhelming. He doesn’t share that sentiment. “The Holy Father would have done much more, if he could. People had their expectations. He had his limitations: his age, his health, etc.
The Holy Father was always willing to meet the victims…there was never a doubt. I can tell you this”
“His principal intention was to contribute towards the healing of hearts. In fact, he succeeded in touching. He brought consolation to the afflicted. He reassured many who felt hurt, and he invited them to look to the future with hope,” according to Archbishop Okolo.
But, what was it like to have the Pope spend the night in your home, I wonder?
“It was very warm. We know that he [Pope Francis] loves to be with the people, but he also likes to feel at home when he comes back. So, the reverend sisters here are Spanish-speaking – with one from Argentina…so whenever the Holy Father came back home after everything outside, he felt at home and he turned from Italian or English to Spanish immediately,” Archbishop Okolo recalls. Dr Okolo recalls that despite the tightness of the Pope’s schedule, Francis wanted to reach out to people.
He recalls the Pope’s brief opportunity for lunch after the meeting with the civil authorities in Dublin Castle.
The Pope was due to have lunch at 1pm and the archbishop recalls that everything was timed to perfection so the Pope’s meal would be hot. “But you know what happened? The Pope didn’t know that more than 400 people were on the grounds waiting for him,” he recalls. They were children from the local schools who had asked if they could see the Pope.
Archbishop Okolo said that months before the Pope arrived he was alerted to people at the door of the nunciature asking for him. “It was 20 little boys from the school, they came here with a piece of paper saying: “Nuncio, the Pope is coming to our grounds, we must be there to meet him.”
And so it was. “When the Pope came in he saw just a sea of children, he told the driver to stop. And the children didn’t expect this. And he began to greet them one by one, and shake their hands.
“At this stage I had to come closer to him, I told him, ‘Holy Father, the pumpkin soup is getting cold.’ He looked at me and said, ‘this is better than the food!’ So he continued. He didn’t even hurry, no,” the archbishop recalls with a smile.
Francis remained concentrated on the Irish reality, and wasn’t thinking of just going home to solve another problem”
“He remained here mentally and physically,”
A more sombre encounter at the nunciature was that with survivors of abuse.
A meeting of survivors was always going to be part of a Papal visit to Ireland. However, with just two weeks to go it was reported in the media that there was doubt whether the Pope would hold such a meeting or not. That doubt created some confusion among the people.
“The Holy Father was always willing to meet the victims,” Archbishop Okolo insists. “There was never a doubt. I can tell you this, because I know from hearing from him many months before he came that he wanted to meet the survivors, and also whatever group that he could meet. So, he was ready for that.
“There was no doubt about it – the discussion was more how to do it. I think some misunderstood that, and then thought that the Holy Father was hesitant. He was never hesitant, I can tell you about it. I can vouch for this, because I heard this from him,” Dr Okolo said.
One of the other highlights of the visit for the archbishop was the trip to Knock, especially the quiet moments of prayer at the site of the apparition.
“He went to Knock to pray as a pilgrim, and he had time to pray. It was supposed to last for five minutes – the prayer time – but he extended it to ten minutes. Even when Fr Richard [Gibbons] came up to tell him, ‘Holy Father, it’s time to go’ he just looked at him and went on with his prayer!” the nuncio recalls.
The closing Mass of WMOF was to be the highpoint of the Pope’s visit, but the day was marked by torrential rain and just a fraction of the 500,000 people who had been expected turned up in Phoenix Park.
I ask if the nuncio was disappointed by this. “No,” he says emphatically. “I was disappointed by the play on words and figures. I’m a journalist and we read between the lines. You see the play on figures and the words. That was what disappointed me”.
Archbishop Okolo says that people must be patient when it comes to the appointment of bishops to vacant sees”
It is clear that Archbishop Okolo was disappointed by some logistical failings in the organisation and preparation – particularly for the Phoenix Park. “The security thing was exaggerated. If you want people to see the Holy Father, why get them to walk for 5km? You know what I mean? It was unfair.
“They could have made more effort to bring people closer to see him,” he thinks.
Readers will recall that on the Sunday morning of the Papal visit, a former Vatican diplomat released a dossier – seemed designed to scupper the trip to Dublin – accusing the Pontiff of being complicit in not taking seriously allegations of abuse against Theodore McCarrick.
What was the nuncio’s impression of the Pope’s reaction, I wondered.
Francis “maintained his calm and concentrated. I need to emphasise this. He remained concentrated on the Irish reality, and wasn’t thinking of just going home to solve another problem.
“He remained here mentally and physically,” the archbishop recalls of the controversy.
One of the key roles of a Vatican diplomat in a country is to advise the Pope on who should be appointed as bishops. This, historians argue, is one of the reason why many Irish bishops – in the habit of having huge influence over the appointment of their successor – were not at all pleased when the government of the new Free State convinced Rome to start sending resident nuncios.
Archbishop Okolo says that people must be patient when it comes to the appointment of bishops to vacant sees.
“The questionnaire [part of the consultation process on the appointment of bishops] is a very long one and is graded in 12 detailed sections – and they reflect the requirements of Pope Francis.
“He gives full attention to the replies and that is why the entire documentation is normally sent to him. Appointments take into consideration the person, the place where he is supposed to work, and his qualities…it is a very slow process; it needs concentration and attention. It needs study and verification and intensive consultation”.
I put it to Dr Okolo that Dublin – Ireland’s largest diocese – will soon need a new shepherd since Archbishop Diarmuid Martin is obliged to submit his resignation in April when he turns 75.
The nuncio cautions people who think there will be a hasty appointment. “It is delicate and still very premature for discussion. Otherwise, it could raise a flurry of undesired opinions. We wait until the Holy Father gives the go-ahead.
“As a servant, I cannot go ahead of my master. We wait until he blows the whistle, and the race takes off. I will let you know!”
I put it to him that as a journalist he must know that speculation is part of the bread and butter of journalists. He laughs. “There is a season for everything. It will be a fascinating moment, because many people are very interested, including those who have nothing to do with the Church. We shall need the graces and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit”.
He insists that it will be a while before there is movement in Dublin. “There is no move yet and there is no move foreseen until the archbishop submits a letter to the Holy Father [in April 2020].
“And when he does, the Holy Father will read his letter and then get back to the nunciature and say, ‘all right, go ahead.’
“Until that is done, I don’t know anything about it because the step will begin from the archbishop himself. That is why we wouldn’t put the cart ahead of the horse,” he says. So, might Archbishop Martin – who has often spoken of his imminent departure – stay on longer than his 75th birthday? “I don’t know. Everything depends on the Holy Father. So, we cannot foresee.
“I have a lot to keep me busy until then, I tell you,” he says. At the time of the Apostolic Visitation of the Church in Ireland ordered by Benedict XVI, the smart money was on an amalgamation of Irish dioceses. Though, conventional wisdom has it that in the meantime Irish bishops killed the idea in Rome.
“All I can say is that the process of amalgamation has already started,” Archbishop Okolo says. “It will be slow and steady – to avoid hurts, shocks, and surprises. Everyone implicated in the matter will be involved. The people will effect the amalgamation, work out the details of the cohesion, and inform the Holy See,” he says.
“I want to be discreet about it, in order not to go ahead. Because if I say it has begun, and the people will say, ‘but we don’t know about it’. Yes, it has begun.
“The amalgamation begins from the grassroots. The communities, the meetings. In all the dioceses today, there are consultations going on…some don’t want to hear it,” he says.
When we meet, the Bishop of Ossory Dr Dermot Farrell has just poured cold water on the idea of ending mandatory celibacy as a way to alleviate the vocations crisis in an interview with The Irish Catholic.
Dr Okolo has seen the interview and thinks Bishop Farrell makes an important point that making celibacy optional is not a silver bullet. “Our brothers in some of the Protestant churches can tell us that married clergy does not solve the question of scarcity of vocations. The same also with our Catholic brothers of the Eastern Rites. It is not a solution for the vocations crisis.
“The problem is that human beings no longer want to sacrifice their time and their efforts to the unique service of others,” he insists.
I am struck by the nuncio’s background as a journalist and his evident interest in the profession.
“We journalists have a duty to humanity to do the best, to create positive images, and also hope and to give hope…we shouldn’t go towards the negative”.
He believes that Catholic newspapers have a vital role to play in challenging negativity that is too often present in secular news outlets. “What the duty of the Catholic media should be is to give people some hope in whatever situation. People go through difficulties, they have to juggle between work and home. At the end of the month, there are bills to be paid…why not talk about positive things?
“There are controversies, but, as journalists, we need to look for things that uplift the mind, and create positive thinking in people. – that is journalism,” he insists.
When I opened my eyes, and if I was able to see anything, one of the first persons I saw was an Irish priest giving me a blessing”
The archbishop is clearly busy in his mission in Ireland – both to the local Church and to the Irish State. So, what does he do to try and relax?
“The Church in Ireland appears small, but it has huge demands on our time. There is hardly time for relaxation. But recently, I brought down my television from the attic, to set it up. It will help me to relax at the weekends, when I am not visiting parishes.
“I play table-tennis; and sometimes I take a walk in a nearby park…I should add that the parish priest of the Navan Road church recently gave me a nice new bicycle, for my regular exercises,” he says.
One gets the distinct impression that Archbishop Okolo feels very much at home in Ireland. “I’m fortunate to have gone around the dioceses, and many parishes in almost every corner of the country. I have relished Irish cordiality, hospitality and welcome.
“And especially the Faith, and the harmony in the families…my message is this, my reflection is this: this sense of sharing, cordiality, hospitality, openness, transparency, honesty, goodness and respect is Irish. When I say it is Irish, it’s not just one person. It’s not just one community. It pervades. I encourage Irish people to be what they are.
“The world knows about it [Ireland] because they have brought these qualities to every part of the world. And we know, myself from infancy to today, I felt it. Because when I opened my eyes, and if I was able to see anything, one of the first persons I saw was an Irish priest giving me a blessing. And I don’t know what he said in his blessing, but I know it continues. And so, we have all seen the goodness of the Irish.
“The world continues to expect the best from them. Whether it is in Brexit or apart from Brexit,” he says.
I take talk of the dreaded ‘B’ word as time to bring our interview to an end. This is, after all, the season of good will to all!