Pandemic is testing our patience, our resilience, our reserves of energy, says Primate of All Ireland
If ever an image encapsulated the role of faith during the pandemic it is this: Archbishop Eamon Martin — leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland — walking through the deserted streets of Co Armagh blessing houses as residents fell to their knees in prayer.
That was last year amid the worst of Covid-19 when the Primate of All Ireland wanted to “bring a message of hope” to the streets of the Northern Ireland city with two cathedrals.
Archbishop Martin admits that moment “brought me to tears” as he watched people of all ages kneeling on their doorsteps and peering out of their windows as he carried the blessed sacrament on his own.
It would not be the first time he would get emotional — the deaths of a number of priests to Covid-19 and the inability to give those men a funeral service caused him upset.
Now when he conducts Covid-related funerals he often cries, he says, in an interview with the Sunday Independent. “I think the prayers at a funeral liturgy are very beautiful. There’s one line at the very end about taking the person to his or her ‘place of rest’ and those words are always very emotional and very difficult to say.”
Has Covid-19 affected his strength? “I think Covid is testing all of us,” he says. “It’s testing our patience, our resilience, our reserves of energy. It draws on your deepest resources.”
Archbishop Martin’s own resilience was tested last year when he was faced with adhering to Government restrictions around church services, specifically “that for a priest to say mass he would be breaking the law and could be subject to prosecution”.
“For me, that really touched a raw nerve,” he says. “For some reason, in the south, there was a more standoffish approach between church and State. You had to contact the Taoiseach, it was all at a very high level. That tension was there all the time and at times it became extremely difficult.”
He found himself “more exhausted” as a result of what a friend described at one point as life “just full of gloom and Zoom”.
“Emotionally, yes, it has been draining. There’s no question about that. Mental health and stress is something that I think anyone in a senior position like mine has to always be aware of. I have a lot on my plate and sometimes it can seem overwhelming. I would be dishonest not to say that.”
Coronavirus has severely dented the church’s finances with his own diocese seeing a 30pc decline in income, leaving the real possibility of some church buildings closing their doors for good.
“It has to be a possibility, yes,” the archbishop says. “I think in some communities where a church building needs huge work done to it, where there is now a very small worshipping community, and the worshipping community is unable to find the resource to restore the church, it has to become a question. We have to recognise the numbers are down therefore we don’t have the same needs or the same ability to maintain all of our properties.”
The practice rate for priests was once between 75pc to 90pc — now it’s between 15pc and 20pc with questions over how the Catholic Church in Ireland will ever fix this problem.
“Vocations to the priesthood don’t grow on trees; you can’t produce a priest overnight. The only way to reverse that is to start at the very beginning, to build faith in homes, in families, and in parish communities,” he said.
He believes the numbers of vocations to the priesthood “will continue to decline until there is an increase in practice” and says he accepts “that Ireland is no longer able to provide enough vocations to be able to sustain the sacramental life that we have become used to”.
He describes the question over whether allowing priests to marry would solve the problem as “simplistic” and maintains “there’s equally a crisis in vocations to the married life”.
“I mean, the number of people getting married has dropped as well. Therefore, that would make one wonder, is it the lifelong commitment that is attached to marriage or to the priesthood?
“It probably says something about the type of society that we have grown accustomed to now. The demands that employers are putting on employees versus demands that society is putting on people to be instantly available, ready to move, ditch your family life, your commitments.”
Sunday Independent: “Would you have liked to have got married?
Eamon Martin: At times, yes, I think that I would, particularly when I would have seen my friends from school, you know, having children. Now indeed, in some cases, having grandchildren. There’s part of you that misses the idea and kind of wondered what it would have been like to get married. But it’s something that makes me also renew my own commitment.
SI: You are having to reaffirm your commitment to God?
EM: Let’s face it. I’ve had to renew that commitment over and over again as a priest in the same way, sorry for saying this again, that my friends and family members have to do in their marriage. Yeah, it’s not something you do as a one-off; you need to constantly have to do that.
SI: Why would you need to do that over and over again? Have you struggled with being a priest?
EM: I made the commitment to serve God and to serve the church for life and there have been times during my life as a priest where I’ve struggled with that. But thank God I’ve been able to keep going, I know that I’m different to other people in that regard.
SI: Do you ever think about children, do you regret not being able to have become a father?
EM: Having made a commitment to priesthood where I’m not in that one-to-one relationship with someone, I’ve accepted that. I think everybody wishes, you know, and wonders ‘What if?’. I do. But I think it just serves to help me renew my own vocation to the priesthood.
SI: Have you ever been in love?
EM: Yes, of course, I have, yeah. I would say yes, I’ve been privileged to have met people where I’ve felt, you know, very humbled and very open and realising that this is the sort of thing that could lead to commitment. But I suppose I’ve had to face the honesty of my own situation, and where I am.
SI: Was this before you became a priest or after?
EM: Less so now these days. But certainly, in my early days, and priesthood. I think coming face to face with the commitment that I made in the priesthood was something that I and I think many priests have experienced. And indeed, again, people who have made a marriage commitment to one person are often confronted with that same reality: can I remain committed? Will I remain committed? And for that you need the grace of the sacrament of marriage, or in my case, the sacrament of holy orders to assist and the help of God and help of others.”
On the subject of clerical abuse, the Archbishop does not believe the Catholic Church should ever move on from its past when asked if it will ever recover from the hurt it has caused to so many.
“If by recovering you mean move on, I don’t think so, I don’t think they should. I’ve always been very reluctant to suggest that the church has the right to leave it behind.
“Because if we are walking daily with victims of abuse, and if we want to show empathy for them, then we need to accept that we don’t have the right to recover.”
He says he finds it “extremely difficult to comprehend how one of my brother priests could have so betrayed his promise of priesthood”.
“Sitting right where you are now were the parents of a young man who had been abused. That was even more difficult because they loved their priest. They loved this particular priest so much that they let him share in their family life.
They brought him on holidays with them. He slept in their home. They entrusted their children to him, he was part of the family. And they only discovered years later that he was abusing their children.”
He has seen the anger of victims, those who tell him, “I can’t trust you, I don’t believe a word you’re saying to me” and those who have “physically attacked me”.
Archbishop Martin accepts there is “absolutely no doubt the culture of the church was to keep things quiet”.
Asked if he believed sexual abuse was taking place within the Catholic Church today, he replied: “It would be very foolish of me to say that there’s no way that abuse could happen in the church. All of our safeguarding protocols are in place now on the basis that abuse could happen.”
The furore over President Michael D Higgins refusing to attend an event to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland “disappointed” him, because it was “being portrayed as something that it was not”.
“We felt everybody was on board. Then once it became a matter of popular opinion, everybody immediately reverted to stereotype and went straight back into their bunkers again, a kind of a vulcanised, sort of a bunker mentality.”
On a Border poll, he says he “would like to see a United Ireland” and that questions of identity and belonging “are welcome, are alive and well”.
“I would like to see a Border poll. I think that it would be pointless to have a Border poll like Brexit, where nobody really knew what it was they were voting for when they had it.
“It is incumbent upon all of the political leaders on this island, north and south, to open up questions of identity and belonging, and to honestly face them.
“That’s what needs to happen on this island, and recognising that there are a whole bunch of new people living in this island now who have other cultures, other identities, other senses of belonging.”