CARDINAL Sean Brady has revealed he is looking forward to finishing his stint at the helm of the Catholic Church in Ireland and may return to low-key parish work.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Irish Independent, Dr Brady spoke of his forthcoming retirement in August 2014 when he will be succeeded in Armagh by Archbishop Eamon Martin.
He said he was looking forward to handing over the reins as he will have served 19 years as a bishop. He was consecrated in 1995 and elevated to the cardinalate in 2007.
He also signalled his hope to be involved in parish ministry when he retires, as he only spent one year doing this during the course of his ministry. He spent a number of years in Rome as Rector of the Irish College.
Dr Brady (74) also hopes to have more time to read and catch up on current affairs as well as take more of an interest in GAA football, which he played at county level as a minor. He was selected for the Cavan senior team in the early 1960s, but the church dispatched him to the Irish college in Rome -- and so ended his footballing career.
His retirement means he will not play a significant role in the major synod of bishops announced by Pope Francis for next October in Rome to discuss challenges to family life and structure.
But speaking about 2013, Dr Brady said the high point for him was his participation in the conclave in Rome which elected Pope Francis.
"Personally I felt an amazing sense of honour. There have only been six conclaves to elect a pope in which Irish prelates have participated."
He said it was only on day two of the election that the cardinals really got down to business and four votes later the future Pope Francis emerged as the choice. In total there were just five votes taken.
Citing Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as having established "a good model for us", he said retiring bishops could still play a part in the church through prayer and other projects.
He said he had invited Pope Francis to come to Ireland on his election last March but underlined that as "he is an old man of 77" that the pontiff would not be a globetrotter.
Instead, Dr Brady urged the Irish faithful: "Let's all go to Rome to see him. It is a very simple place to get to and people have no bother going to the beaches of Spain -- so why not go to Rome especially for this coming year when there is going to be a big launch of the Columbanus year in October."
St Columbanus was born in 543AD and died in 615. He set out on a missionary journey across France, Switzerland and Italy, founding monasteries along the way.
Speaking about the Irish church, Dr Brady said it has been undergoing "a spiritual bailout" in parallel with the country's economic bailout.
He identified the International Eucharistic Congress in 2012 as one of the first green shoots of renewal and said it had given the Irish abroad an opportunity to come back and lend support.
Dr Brady will have a busy Christmas, including midnight Mass in Armagh Cathedral and 8am Mass in St Malachy's in the city. Then he will have a "beautiful rural drive to Dundalk looking at the Mourne Mountains" before saying 11.30am Mass in St Patrick's Cathedral, in Dundalk.
Afterwards he will visit the Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of St Louis before driving "down through Patrick Kavanagh Drumlin country" where he will "have the road all to myself -- because everybody at that stage will have receded to their homes".
He has a sister in Dublin who is a retired teacher, but "the tug of home always takes me back to rural Cavan to the family farm" where he will spend Christmas Day with his only brother and his family.
The next day, in the local church, he will celebrate Mass for all those who have died in the past year.
His fondest memory of Christmas was when he was 13. It was his first Christmas home after starting boarding school in St Patrick's College in Cavan where he was a student from 1952 to 1957.
"I remember coming home after being in this big high roofed building from September to December and thinking that the roof of our house was so low.
"Then going to midnight Mass in the horse and trap and putting cogs in the horses' shoes to make sure they didn't slip on the icy road.
"My mother lit candles in every window to welcome the Christ child and Mary and Joseph on the road. Neighbours, who might be living on their own, might join us for some stage on Christmas Day.
"Life moved at a slower pace then and Christmas was much simpler -- it was very evocative."