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.