A new style of leadership needed for the church in Ireland

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin is, by all accounts, a tired man. In the Irish Times, Patsy McGarry commented that many have remarked on his ’visible tiredness’, one source suggesting that ‘he has aged five years in the last two’.

It’s not surprising. The man is almost 74 and has spent the last 15 years coping with the whirlwind of clerical child abuse scandals in Dublin diocese and attempting to make up for the dismal years of his predecessor, Cardinal Des Connell, a man who was clearly out of touch with modern Ireland.

The word is that a weary Martin is about to step down in Dublin. He himself fuelled this perception by telling RTE’s This Week that it would be good ‘not just that I retire but that there would be a different leadership in the Church’. Interestingly, the two remaining auxiliary bishops in Dublin, Eamonn Walsh and Ray Field, will be 75 this year. As a result speculation has increased that a raft of bishops’ appointments will be announced soon giving the bench of bishops a fresh look.

That may be a mite optimistic as appointments of Catholic bishops can be a frustratingly slow process. Church law stipulates that bishops send in their letters of retirement on their 74th birthday with an expectation that, a year on, their successor and their own retirement will be announced. It rarely happens.

Over five years ago, Bishop John Kirby of Clonfert retired. He’s now in his 80s and still waiting to be released from this now too common form of episcopal captivity. It seems unfair to the bishop involved, unwarranted in that we’re not talking rocket science here and even (it might be suggested) a form of elder abuse.

Part of the problem now seems to be that some priests regard an episcopal appointment as a nightmare (as it seems to be now) rather than an honour (as it used to be). Indeed it’s generally accepted now that appointments have been turned down time and time again. Why else, it’s asked, would a diocese like Clonfert (the smallest in Ireland) be waiting nearly six years for a bishop?

Another problem is that being a bishop is an impossible task. Like school principals caught between conflicting expectations of teachers, students and parents, bishops are always wrong. But because bishops as card-carrying Christians are precluded from telling awkward people to get lost, the long-term consequences of ‘being nice’ eventually can corrode the spirit.

A third problem is that ambitious priests who spend their lives preparing themselves to be bishops (the bane of Pope Francis’ life) are the kind of bishops we don’t need. But the dilemma is that those we need don’t want it and those who want it shouldn’t get it.

At present several dioceses are vacant or will be vacant in a few years. These include not just Dublin but Cork, Galway, Tuam, Achonry, Kilmore and Ferns. So even not allowing for illness or the Grim Reaper, it might be suggested that it’s possible that, with Pope Francis’ reforming policy, a new and different form of leadership in the Irish Church is about to emerge.

I’m not too sure about that. Despite the new broom in Rome, there’s no compelling evidence that appointments under the last two papal nuncios are any different from what they were in the past, though we live in very different times.

It seems that those making the decisions are, effectively, replicating versions of themselves in the appointments they make. Candidates who were regarded as ‘safe men’ (as bishops were once positively designated) are still being appointed even though some of those regarded as ‘safe men’ have a disconcerting habit of dropping the ball at crucial intervals.

To continue the sporting metaphor, in the past bishops seemed to be robust corner-backs, watching their patch and defensively repulsing anyone who ventured into their territories. In a world where everything seemed either black or white, and when the prevailing wind was on our backs, that limited ability seemed adequate to the task in hand.

But now, when everything seems a shade of grey, and reality is more complex than we ever imagined it to be, the episcopal corner-back seems out of his depth. In a world where good and bad often seem peculiarly difficult to distinguish and where ambivalence is the order of the day, living with difference demands more sophisticated skills. What’s needed is not a corner-back but a creative midfielder who has the ability and temperament ‘to mix it up a bit’ in taking the Catholic Church (as Pope Francis keeps suggesting) in a new and radical direction.

What we need are bishops who are secure enough in their own skin to be able to live with ambivalence and complexity; bishops who are not afraid to speak their minds and to name the truth as they see it; bishops who are comfortable with the culture of our times and who can speak about God and the absence of God in a rapidly changing world.  Tomorrow’s men (as distinct from yesterday’s men) who have the imagination, the creativity and above all the courage not to keep looking over their shoulders to Rome and to confront – respectfully but robustly – those who want to lead us back to the nineteenth century.

Patsy McGarry suggests that, with Archbishop Martin at 74 and the two Dublin auxiliaries both 75, 2019 presents the Catholic Church in Dublin with an opportunity for the appointment of an entire cadre of new  leadership and the energy that would bring at a time when a fresh start there and in the Catholic Church generally is so much needed.

The same could be said of the west. With Achonry and Clonfert vacant and Tuam and Galway to be the same when Archbishop Michael Neary and Bishop Brendan Kelly retire in a few years, the hope would be that a new style of leadership in the west might evolve too.

We live in hope.


Brendan Hoban

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  1. Kevin Walters says:

    I believe that the Shepherd leader (New type of Bishop) for a new invigorated church will be a transparent humble one, with the capacity to discern and direct the potential in others. Leading them also to become (working) Shepherds, male and female, who together hold each other responsible for their combined actions, before the faithful, underpinned by total honesty, the serving of the Truth in all situations would be the binding mortar holding these new emerging structures together.

    Extracts from the article (See link below)

    “Men on a Mission: ‘Exodus 90’ Encourages Spiritual Growth in Contrast to Culture”

    How It Works
    About 7,000 men, including 1,100 who signed up at the recent “SEEK 2019” conference for college students, are currently on waitlists for the next Exodus 90, but as momentum builds, Baxter said he is confident no fewer than 10,000, and possibly more, will be on board by Jan. 21. Registrations tend to flood in the day before and the first day of a new 90-day cycle, he said, and those on waitlists will be asking others to join them.

    Even though men register for Exodus 90 individually, one of the program’s four “pillars” is “fraternity,” meaning participants make the spiritual exercise as part of a small group that meets regularly and is guided by a spiritual director, who can be a priest or layman.
    The other pillars of Exodus 90, which is designed specifically for the spirituality and struggles of men, are 90 days, prayer and asceticism, or self-denial. Ninety days is considered both a manly challenge and the length of time needed for the brain to “reset,” and the four pillars in combination are part of the Tradition of the Church, particularly the spirit of the early Christian hermits known as the Desert Fathers.

    Priestly Perspective

    Father Buettner, who has been ordained five years and serves as a pastor and vocations director, said the program changed his priesthood and refocused his mission. Although it was difficult, he said the fraternity of his support group was sanctified by the Holy Spirit, and they grew closer as brothers with each penance.
    Additionally, he said he noticed that the advice he was giving in confessions felt inspired by the Spirit, as did his celebration of Mass. “Everything was becoming more clear about the true sanctity of who I am as a priest. … It felt like my heart was beating with the Lord’s.”


    Please consider reading my post under the article, with the link that brings you back to the ACP site

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. Edward Butler says:

    Thank you Brendan. Harsh and risky though it may seem, I guess the only way to change the present unsatisfactory system of episcopal appointments is to resist it. Holy disobedience is nothing new. In the Middle Ages, Bishop (later Saint) Hugh of Lincoln, when commanded by Rome to cede a large swathe of his extensive diocese to an absentee Sicilian Count, responded to that papal bull by reciting a list of reasons why this was a very bad idea and concluding his reply with the words “ergo reverenter, fideliter et obedienter NON OBEDIO” (“therefore reverently, faithfully and obediently I will not obey you.”)

  3. Mary Vallely says:

    Imagination, creativity and courage , yes, qualities definitely needed in any leader. I believe that if a bishop isn’t commanding the respect of the people he should step down. Accountability is essential! Mistakes can be made and why should any poor man floundering out of his depth be kept on simply to ‘save face.’ It is unfair to the people and to that particular bishop. Kindness and compassion need to be exercised in this task, of course.

    A bishop should have pastoral experience and a caring, fatherly, compassionate attitude towards his priests. He needs to be a man who understands their concerns because he has experienced the same or similar himself. He can then empathise in a more authentic way.

    He needs those attributes Seamus Ahearne pointed out recently, humanity and humour and the humility to admit that he is wrong from time to time. ( Pope Francis has done it.) Listening ears, a willingness to learn, a willingness to consult regularly with all the faithful, clergy and laity; he must of course be a person of deep faith and prayer. ( ok, a ‘man’. Have to accept change comes achingly, heartbreakingly slowly.)

    People can see through false bonhomie and will no longer respect a bishop who obviously cares more about the finer things in life, who cares more about living in luxurious surroundings and enjoying fine dining, first class travel and accommodation. The days of deference are over. We want authenticity and someone who will champion the marginalised and speak out against injustice. Priests and parishioners should have a say in episcopal elections.

    My twopenny worth as one of the faithful, not yet departed.

  4. Sean O’Conaill says:

    Given the age profile of clergy now and virtually empty seminaries, Unicorns are as likely to turn up now as ideal bishops.

    Consider instead that ‘command Catholicism’ is dying for a reason. Will the merely baptised ever become responsible if we continue to wait for the clerical superstructure to sort itself out, when it is perfectly clear there is no clerical energy, even in the ACP, for proactive collaboration on a basis of strict equality, in parish base communities?

    My understanding of the church’s original growth, pre-Constantine, is that the Word proliferated through the enthusiasm of the merely baptised, and that the clerical superstructure arrived later, elected from the base communities. The imperial structure we are looking to is the husk of that constantinian system.

    Meanwhile the Holy Spirit is clearly active OUTSIDE that husk, so why look to that husk as the only possible source of recovery for western Catholicism? Are we not already a diaspora, very like the sheep without credible shepherds in Jesus’s time. So why not look directly to the Holy Spirit to guide and unify and lead us, not in revolt so much as in indifference to a system incapable of reform, much as we look at the ruins of Clonmacnoise?

    Owen O’Sullivan’s story of the parishes he had to leave in Angola way back comes to mind. Left without clergy in a civil war, but with the texts of the two-year liturgical cycle, lay people acted together on the instruction in this Sunday’s Gospel – to bring the message of peace to their neighbours. And when the Franciscans returned they found more parishes than they had left years earlier.

    Maybe we Irish merely baptised need to be without clergy for a time, to become responsible ourselves! Maybe it is only our residual reliance on the superstructure that holds us back, concealing the reality that Baptism is the primary sacrament, not Ordination.

  5. Jane Delaney says:

    I am finding the comments as informative & as interesting as the articles themselves, and I say that with the greatest of respect for everyone! Highlights for me that we can all be looking out the one window, and yet each one sees a different landscape – quite fascinating really.

  6. Paddy Ferry says:

    Excellent, as always, Brendan. I especially like the paragraph below where you suggest the kind of new model we need. And, I can assure you, Ireland is not the only country where a new model of church leadership is urgently required.

    “What we need are bishops who are secure enough in their own skin to be able to live with ambivalence and complexity; bishops who are not afraid to speak their minds and to name the truth as they see it; bishops who are comfortable with the culture of our times and who can speak about God and the absence of God in a rapidly changing world. Tomorrow’s men (as distinct from yesterday’s men) who have the imagination, the creativity and above all the courage not to keep looking over their shoulders to Rome and to confront – respectfully but robustly – those who want to lead us back to the nineteenth century.”

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