My initial thoughts on the new appointment to head of Dublin Archdiocese.
It is no surprise to me, or, I’m sure to most people, that the choice fell to Dermot Farrell, current bishop of Ossory and former President of Maynooth College.
It is important to wish him well, since he is taking on an enormous task.
I never had any dealings with Dermot in his Maynooth days, but when a request came in for a parish mission in Dunboyne, where he was parish priest, it was my task to lead it. This was, obviously, before I was suspended, but I was already known for my views on Church reform, and the ACP had got off the ground and was making something of an impact. So I wondered how myself and the former president of Maynooth would get on during this venture which, with Dunboyne being effectively a suburb of Dublin, was not going to be an easy event to make successful. As it happened we got on very well, and worked easily together to make it into a very worthwhile exercise. I found Dermot to be personable, pleasant and quite open. But of course, he is a churchman to his core, so I don’t know how he will fare in this formidable task that he will shortly be taking on.
In some ways the retiring archbishop, Diarmuid Martin, will be a hard act to follow. He had a very high media profile, and generally was spoken and written about in a positive fashion. The big task facing him, when he was appointed, was the problem of clerical sex abuse. It was an enormously difficult situation, made worse by the almost total inability of his predecessor to even face the enormity of what was being revealed. I didn’t always agree with the way Martin handled this problem, but overall I think it fair to say that he did well. Fate had favoured him in that he had not been a bishop in any diocese up to his Dublin appointment. There were no skeletons in closets. He governed over a period of enormous decline in the Church, in terms of church attendance, credibility and morale. Here, l believe, was his greatest failure. He did little or nothing about the collapse of priesthood, the place of women in the Church, sexual teaching, or the many other areas of Church life where reform is essential to the future. I thought he was particularly weak around the time of the World Meeting of Families, an event where he should have ultimately be calling the shots. He allowed right-wing groups to dictate certain crucial decisions about advance publicity, and attendance, that led to the event losing most of its credibility among the people. Some would say that he did not get on well with many of his priests. Some of the men in Dublin that I most admire were very negative about him, some even enormously angry about certain aspects of his governance. It will be the job of the new man to build up better relations with his priests.
Dermot Farrell takes over at a time of possibly even greater challenges. When this pandemic eventually fades from the scene after the vaccine has done its work, how many people will return to regular church attendance? We don’t know, but I suspect we will look back on this as a time when the collapse of the Irish Church, which has been happening for many years, will have been greatly accelerated. In the next few years he will see many of his parishes without priests. The issue of equality for women will become more and more urgent. The enormous power struggle going on in the international Church between those who want change (and that in my books includes Francis) and the highly organised and funded traditionalist groups will become more evident in Ireland.
How will Dermot Farrell face up to these issues? They will be the test of the man and the archbishop. I said early on that he is a Churchman at his core. He will need to be more, greater and freer than that if he is to measure up to the task he is now taking on.
Last thought: Will he be able to do something to make the conference of bishops more of a coherent leadership body? In this Diarmuid Martin was a failure, to the detriment of the whole Irish Church. Without dynamic, imaginative and courageous leadership the future of the Irish Church is very bleak.
I do wish Dermot Farrell well. I trust that he will be imbued and inspired by the Spirit to allow the ‘freedom of the children of God’ to flourish.