Monday 24 October 2016

Michael Kelly: Irish Catholicism's leader-in-waiting will first have to win over the deflated priests

Published 22/04/2013 | 05:00

When Archbishop Eamon Martin eventually succeeds Cardinal Sean Brady as Primate of All-Ireland, he will inherit a church in need of a lot of rebuilding.

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As a former executive secretary of the hierarchy, Archbishop Martin knows more than most the challenges facing the church and the personalities and rivalries at the heart of Irish Catholicism.

His appointment means that the church in Ireland now has two Archbishop Martins – and not just in name.

Since his return from the Vatican in 2003, Dublin's Diarmuid Martin has cleverly positioned himself as a bishop set apart. When people grumble about 'the bishops', they invariably don't include the Archbishop of Dublin.

The forthrightness and honesty with which he confronted clerical abuse set him apart. In the midst of a hierarchy critically wounded by past mishandling of abuse, Diarmuid Martin carved out a niche for himself as the acceptable face of a damaged church.

In contrast, Cardinal Brady in Armagh has been dogged by his involvement in the case of notorious abuser Fr Brendan Smyth.

Eamon Martin, the new Archbishop Martin, brings the same clean hands to the role that has distinguished his namesake.

At 51, Eamon Martin is the youngest prelate in the country and is likely to succeed Cardinal Brady within 12 months. He will be tasked with leading the renewal and reform of the Catholic Church in Ireland at one of the most difficult moments the institution's history.

If he is to succeed, he will have to demonstrate an ability to lead an inclusive church. In short, he will have to bring people with him.

His first constituency to woo will be the hard-pressed and often deflated priests. Many of them have soldiered leaderless at a time when their vocational choice was derided.

Dublin's Archbishop Martin got off to a bad start with his priests and, arguably, has never recovered. Similarly, he failed to connect with other members of the hierarchy. They will look to the new man in Armagh as a counter-balance.

Most Irish priests have modest expectations, but they do want to be listened to. Likewise, laypeople feel a piercing need to be heard. The primate-in-waiting should use his time with Cardinal Brady to listen.

Remarkably, things are not as bad as they seem. Eamon Martin inherits a church in surprisingly robust shape.

Catholicism has collapsed in large parts of the capital, but around the country, the picture is more nuanced. There is no longer the 90pc Mass attendance of the past, but many parishes in rural Ireland and large provincial towns are vibrant faith communities.

Surveys indicate that around one-third of Irish people attend Mass weekly. In the Pope's own diocese of Rome, the figure is around 12pc.

There is a critical mass to build on, but the key challenge will be to connect with younger people. It's been a perfect storm for Irish Catholicism – a combination of revulsion at church failings and secularism has coincided with a crisis in the transmission of the faith. Surveys indicate that belief in God remains high, but this doesn't translate into a sense of belonging to the church.

Archbishop Martin will have to look to those parts of the church in highly secularised countries of continental Europe recording increased youth participation as a result of innovative approaches.

Theologically, Archbishop Martin is orthodox, though as a church governor he is a pragmatist. He is likely to bring a business-like mind-set to hierarchy meetings, notorious for never getting through an agenda.

Friends say he is neither nostalgic nor cavalier about church structures. Expect some expansion of structures that work well and pruning of institutions that don't.

Clerical sexual abuse continues – and will continue – to cast a long shadow. Eamon Martin has faced this reality with determination. He was a member of the church's abuse watchdog and when an audit laid bare the failings in his native Derry Diocese, he was forthright in his criticism of two previous bishops.

Arguably the church now has the most robust guidelines for handling abuse allegations of any institution in Ireland. But the vital work of reaching out to victims and trying to bring healing must continue.

Michael Kelly is editor of 'The Irish Catholic' newspaper and on Twitter @MichaelKellyIC.

Irish Independent

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