‘Outsider’ Bishop is just what Tuam needs
Western People 18.1.2022
For many reasons Sunday, January 9th was a big day for Tuam diocese with the installation of a new archbishop, Francis Duffy. It’s a new year and a fresh new beginning for the priests and people of Tuam – the first appointment of an archbishop in almost three decades.
Even though the position of archbishop of Tuam has little more than a symbolic role for other dioceses in the west, nonetheless it has accumulated over the centuries a status and a tradition that (most of the time) enhances the other dioceses of the western province.
The contribution of significant archbishops like John MacHale – who amplified the status of the position through the qualities they brought to it – have more than compensated for the lesser figures over the years when personal ambition rather than any marked ability was the determining factor in their appointment.
MacHale, a native of Lahardane, the best known and probably the most able of archbishops of Tuam in history, had many of the qualities necessary for effective leadership: intelligence, charisma, vision, commitment. Though not bereft of ambition, he had no time for a contrived modesty and made no secret of his belief that he was the best candidate available. MacHale, without much pretence, could stand his ground in any company.
As well as that, he lived through most of the 19th century and was a bishop for 56 years – 9 as bishop of Killala and 47 as archbishop of Tuam. What today would look like an impossibly extended career, it helped create around him an aura of permanence, though towards the end of his days the disadvantages of a long episcopate (as with long pontificates) were all too clear. Sometimes bishops, like popes, can live too long.
When MacHale died the Freeman’s Journal wrote a famous tribute to him: ‘A pillar has fallen in the temple. A tower has tottered to the ground in Israel. John of Tuam was an Agamemnon, king of men, he stood towering head and shoulders over the crowd.’ As with tributes to retired bishops, it now seems overblown and almost embarrassing, but at the time it was regarded as no more than his due.
But back to the present. Even though the appointment of Archbishop Francis Duffy came in under the radar – he wasn’t mentioned in the usual clerical dispatches – there’s a gathering consensus that the Catholic Church’s idiosyncratic and impenetrable appointment process of selecting bishops has delivered for Tuam – in many respects.
One is that Archbishop Duffy is an ‘outsider’, once a term of derision and constraint when bishops were appointed. I thought that once myself but having worked in Killala through the happy tenures of two ‘outsiders’– Tommy Finnegan (Elphin) and John Fleming (Limerick) – and having studied in some depth the history of their three (‘insider’) predecessors, I have happily recanted on my original belief. That the first and necessary qualification for appointment as a bishop is NOT be from the diocese seems now an incontrovertible truth.
A bishop or a priest coming as bishop from ‘a far country’ has the benefit of NOT having priest friends who might unhappily entertain the presumption of an advantage and, as well, the more important benefit of having NO priest enemies who, for whatever reason, imagine their talents won’t be recognized. There are no cliques breaking into factions and subjecting a new bishop to already well noted prejudices or presumptions.
The word in Tuam is that the new archbishop doesn’t seem to know any of the priests very well and that the first time he visited the cathedral in Tuam was the day his appointment was announced. Whereas once all of that might be judged as limitations, they are in fact significant advantages, allowing the new man to make up his own mind without the disadvantage of local self-appointed advisors, moving strategically into his ambit.
The other point that’s made about him is that he’s very aware of the challenges he faces in Tuam and he brings to that task two very important gifts.
One is his reputation of care for priests in the eight years he spent as bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise. Most of the priests in Tuam are now elderly, many of whom are weary and some of whom are very fragile. It’s not going to be easy to motivate them.
The other is his clear adoption of Pope Francis’ synodal pathway as the only way forward: ‘It is timely, it is good and it is exciting that Pope Francis has moved the Church, worldwide, on to a synodal path and done so with enthusiasm and conviction. I see no alternative’.
His experience in both Kilmore, and Ardagh and Clonmacnoise seems to have convinced him that there are still plenty of people who are happy, willing and (yes!) excited about the promise of synodality, a process that promises so much provided the people are respected and trusted in the process and given a real say in their own Church.
On the other hand, if there’s yet another pretend form of participation when clerical authorities insist only change happens on their terms, it will really push parishes, dioceses and the Irish Catholic Church over a final cliff-face. We’ve had too many pretend processes of reform to easily convince anyone to walk that road again without clear commitments to the essential prerequisites of a spirit of openness, trust and accountability. We are now at the stage when pretending that change is happening when it isn’t is just another form of disrespect.
Finally, it’s clear that among Tuam priests and people there’s a huge sense of good will for Archbishop Duffy. With the challenges he is facing, he will need all the support he can get. May God’s spirit guide him on his way.
Delighted to say that my last book, which came out just before Christmas, called Ocras The Great Famine in Killala Diocese has been reprinted and is now available again in all the local bookshops and usual outlets. It can also be got online from mayobooks.ie.