Sunday 16 June 2019

'To me, access to a home is central to living a family life' life

Primate of All Ireland Archbishop Eamon Martin discusses the issues at the core of a defining year for the Catholic Church with 'Sunday Independent' Editor Cormac Bourke

Reflection: Archbishop Eamon Martin in Armagh Cathedral. Photo: David Conachy
Reflection: Archbishop Eamon Martin in Armagh Cathedral. Photo: David Conachy

Cormac Bourke

Tomorrow, after the religious ceremonies of the day have been completed, probably as the darkness begins to fall, Archbishop Eamon Martin, the Primate of All Ireland, leader of the Catholic Church in this country, will travel home to Derry to have Christmas dinner with his 89-year-old mother and members of his family.

He is one of 12 children - six boys and six girls - most of whom are scattered to all parts, some abroad.

"I'm very conscious that during these days, people are making plans to come home," he says.

"Even talking to the parishioners here, they are looking forward to maybe a son or daughter coming home from England or Australia.

"Christmas is a time when, even if you're not able to come home, you can connect up again with family.

"I'm conscious that Christmas is kind of a strange mixture of joy and happiness and the cosiness of family life - but also, in some cases, of tensions, sadness, illness, of people in hospital over Christmas.

Interview: Archbishop Eamon Martin and ‘Sunday Independent’ Editor Cormac Bourke. Photo: David Conachy
Interview: Archbishop Eamon Martin and ‘Sunday Independent’ Editor Cormac Bourke. Photo: David Conachy

"Clergy of all traditions come face to face with the complicated nature of family life at Christmas, so for me it's going to be very much a time to link with my own family, as well as my role as bishop, pastor and shepherd.

"The family of families, if you can call the church that, is made up of people of very different and difficult, happy, and in some cases sad, situations."

The coming year will be a defining one for the Catholic Church in Ireland.

The Pope is due to visit in the summer, coinciding with Ireland hosting the World Meeting of the Families, an international Catholic Church event held every three years.

The welcome extended to the Pope will be very different to that for Pope John Paul II in 1979 which brought the country to a standstill. Ireland is a different country now to that which had the Catholic Church at its centre - and in control of much that impacted on people's lives.

Is Pope Francis relevant for Irish people in 2018? How many people will even be interested? And before that visit, there is the matter of a hugely divisive referendum on abortion, which may just further highlight how much Ireland has changed.

But these are not the first issues that cause Archbishop Martin to become animated.

He is softly spoken and, you suspect, deliberate in his choice of words. Sitting in his residence under the gaze of pictures of Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, he is clearly concerned about the continuing housing crisis.

"On Friday morning I'm going to Dundalk," he explains, "because we have had a huge response to our food hamper appeal this year. The biggest ever. Parishes and families wanting to help the homeless.

"But alongside the huge response, we also have the greatest ever need.

"I think 2018 needs to be the year we take the most radical steps necessary to do something about this homelessness crisis.

"The promises we have heard so far - albeit positive, that there will be an increase in the number of social housing units - these are all good things.

"But those at the cutting edge know it simply won't stop the huge need, that something more radical needs to be done.

"This is an issue for me, and certainly an issue for Government, for communities and for all of us.

"We have to say if we're really serious about the homelessness issue, it's not simply one for Christmas. It's a crisis at Christmas, but in January and February it's still there unless we take radical decisions now.

"We need to look at issues concerning how people get houses and afford mortgages, so this stretches into our whole financial decision-making as well.

"People need to have affordable housing. We've got social housing, we need to have sustainable mortgages, too.

"The homelessness issue is what we're seeing on the surface, but there's a much bigger iceberg under the surface.

"We take the right to have a home as a fundamental human right... Family can't exist without a home, and this responsibility falls on us all, particularly Government.

"The failure is to see homelessness as an isolated issue, separate from a lot of other decisions we are taking regarding finance, investment and family.

"I wonder if we are prioritising family enough, because if we put family as the fundamental unit of society it must then influence our decision-making on a whole range of issues.

"Access to a home is to me central to living a family life - which is then a great investment for society.

"Continuing to try to put a finger in the dam of homelessness - which is what I think is happening at the moment - is simply containing rather than trying to solve the problem.

"The solution is much deeper than simply building a few more social housing units next year.

"What I have been speaking about is really an examination, a deep-level analysis, of the way we make economic and social choices; thinking about the way we allow some people to continue to increase rents way beyond what any typical family might be able to manage.

"I'm horrified at some of the mortgage decisions taken where people were unable to pay their mortgages.

"I think we need to look whether we have affordable housing. There is clearly a housing crisis.

"The word 'homelessness' suggests the problem is about those living on the streets. Fr Peter McVerry and others are telling us it's more than this.

"We need to look more deeply at some of the decisions being taken or being permitted to be taken, and react in a much more holistic way to the root causes of homelessness and the housing crisis in Ireland.

"The very families, five years ago, who were bringing hampers to the food banks, are now coming to food banks for hampers.

"On the ground we have a deep problem: people need to be able to get a home, then need the ability to sustain that home. This is a conversation we need to have in public.

"Some radical interventions are needed beyond simply providing another tranche of social housing next year."


The Catholic Church's pomp and power have been wiped away after a series of abuse scandals, and the unquestioning mass of Mass-goers has now dwindled. When Pope John Paul visited in 1979 nearly 90pc of Catholics were weekly Mass-goers. Now it has been suggested that figure is closer to one in five.

The role of the church in the community has changed at the same time - smaller congregations, fewer Masses, far fewer priests and far less money to fund them.

What is the archbishop's view of how the work of the church has changed?

"The way we 'be' church has changed," he suggests.

"Fundamentally our role hasn't changed, in the sense that we still reach out to people in all sorts of different situations, to try to bring them the message and the hope our faith can bring.

"The surroundings in which we do that have changed dramatically. When I was growing up in Derry I would go to Mass with my family. Today, as a bishop, I go to a parish and look down and notice, when we have families, that they are now obvious - because fewer families are going to Mass together.

"There's been a huge cultural shift all around us - there's no question about that. The number of vocations has declined, the number of Masses has declined and the number of people regularly going to Mass has declined.

"That puts new pressures on us, and new challenges, but I keep having to remind myself that this is our time - this is the time I've been called to be a bishop, not 15 years ago.

"The message I have to bring is a message of hope, a message of forgiveness, of peace, a message of joy, and a message of love.

"That message is as alive now as it was 50 or 100 years ago, but even more so today there is a need for the Christian message to be heard.

"So it's a challenging time to be a priest, to be a bishop. But this is our challenge.

"Every generation brings new concepts and new challenges, but the message of the gospel has remained through all these generations.

"One of the things that is amazing is to walk out on Christmas Day to see the churches literally packed - and packed with families, which gives me joy. But I ask myself where they will all be next week...

"I ask myself why families come to Mass on Christmas Day, and I think it's because even though they may have drifted from practising their faith, deep down within them there is still a connection with God and with Jesus.

"For me, on Christmas morning, it is very important not that we put on a show for these people, but that somewhere in the midst of that ceremony that God touches their lives and touches their hearts.

"It's lovely when families say to you on their way out of Mass on Christmas Day: 'Do you know, Father, it was really nice to be here, we'll be back.' I don't know if they ever will come back: it's not anything I would say.

"As Catholics we believe that Christ is truly present, so if they can experience the presence of Christ they will come back.

"I really believe that the Eucharist - practising your faith - if you do it regularly, is good for you. It's good for your wellbeing; I genuinely believe that.

"I think some people go out of a sense of tradition, because it is something they have always done. It's a bit like having the turkey, or whatever other family customs and traditions they have.

"But when I look down on Christmas morning or at midnight Mass, I have no reason to believe these people are not touching their faith or that God is not touching their lives.

"We have people of faith. With faith, if it's not nourished through practise, through prayer - which is the driver of faith for me, our conversation with God, nourished as if it were a friendship - if it's not nourished, it becomes dormant, and for me a dormant faith is an awful pity.

"Those who go to Mass regularly and practise and go to Mass every Sunday, but whose faith remains dormant in their lives, I think that's equally a pity.

"So I do believe the Irish people are people of faith; I think in many cases that faith has gone to sleep but I believe it is capable of being nourished and nurtured again.

"That is often done through the experience of meeting someone else of faith - not necessarily a priest or bishop, in fact sometimes despite a priest or bishop; someone who has developed a personal relationship and friendship with Christ.

"One of the criticisms made of Irish Catholicism is that we train people into habits, into a culture, but perhaps don't ignite within them a personal encounter with Christ.

"That is what faith is about - my faith, your faith, the faith of others - it's whenever we experience a personal friendship with Christ that is sustainable. The culture, habit and structures of religion and religious practice can disappear very quickly."

Would he prefer to have every church full every Sunday or to have a country in which everyone's personal faith was ignited?

"I really do believe the big challenge for the church in Ireland and probably in many parts of Europe," he said, "is to develop that personal encounter in people's lives with Christ, so they believe Jesus is my Saviour; my personal Saviour. I think that then grows and is nourished and sustained by meeting others.

"Christianity is not a faith of a whole lot of individuals, Christianity has always been about gathering.

"If you think of other examples where people have a particular interest in something - let's say you're a Liverpool supporter; there's not much point in being a Liverpool supporter on your own. It is nourished when you meet other supporters and go to the match.

"I'm not suggesting for a second the church is as simplistic as that, but there is no doubt that Christianity has always flourished when people get together and share their faith.

"In our case the family is the 'little church', the family is where parents and children share their faith together, pray together, go to worship together - that is the kernel, the core of the Catholic faith. It begins, it is nourished and is sustained in the family - the domestic church, the little church.

"The school of faith really is the home."

It will be five years next month since Eamon Martin was appointed Coadjutor Archbishop of Armagh, effectively preparing to take over from Archbishop Sean Brady. Like many other members of the Catholic hierarchy, Archbishop Brady had been dogged by controversy over his handling of the issue of clerical sex abuse of children.

Scandal after scandal rocked the church and made the public turn away in huge numbers. What is Archbishop Martin's view now?

"One of the saddest and, for me, most troubling aspects of the life of the church is the thought that children and young people were not safe, or as safe as they could have been, in some of their activities or with some people connected with the church.

"I think the church, probably as much as any other organisation or institution in this country or indeed around the world, has been at the forefront of efforts to keep children and other young or vulnerable people safe in all its activities.

"This is not something we can ever say is finished and we have put structures in place, and people - lay people at every level in our parishes, our organisations - to be our eyes and our ears, to try to ensure that the risk to children, young people and other vulnerable people is minimised.

"We know every other organisation does the same, whether involved in sport, entertainment or the media - whatever it happens to be; that we all need to do it.

"One of the saddest things is to realise that abuse occurs within families at a huge level.

"Hopefully highlighting the abuse in the media - and the media has to take a lot of credit for bringing to the surface a lot of stuff that was being hidden - has brought about a hopeful positive, that as well as victims having their stories heard and believed, children and young people, wherever they are - whether in school, in clubs, in church or at home - are now safer."

Have the people of Ireland been slow to forgive the church for that?

"It is understandable that when trust is betrayed, it takes a long time to rebuild it, time and experience.

"Sadly, because a lot of this abuse was historical, it keeps resurfacing: it never goes away in the life of someone who has been abused. They may have said something 10 years ago and now it's back with them again.

"So for that reason I think the church has to live with this shadow for a long time to come, and maybe living with it keeps you conscious of the need to protect the little ones - if you want to use the phrase Jesus used.

"That applies to all of us, whether we're a priest, a bishop or a father, a mother, grandparent, teacher, doctor, whatever - we all need to be alert.

"We are looking at new ways people are finding to abuse.

"This is the very sad thing with technology and the internet. There are new ways in which people can abuse children and vulnerable adults even and we always have to be ahead of this, always thinking about how can we improve our procedures, our ways of work, our activities.

"That way we can contain our urge to say, 'we are as safe as possible'.

"I never use the words 'we are safe' because sadly there are still some people in all walks of society who, for whatever reason, abuse children and the vulnerable."

'I don't believe that abortion is good for women'

The archbishop was interviewed on Wednesday morning, just before the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment published its final report. Clearly the campaign that follows will be divisive and the church will be in the vanguard of the campaign to retain the amendment.

"Whilst I haven't read the full report of the Oireachtas Committee which I think isn't being published until later today [Wednesday], I think we have enough signals from last week's votes and from the chairperson's comments to have a reasonable idea to what it's about," he says.

"My immediate reaction is I would be deeply troubled by the conclusions and the recommendations of the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment. I am shocked to think really that in the year 2017, which is the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act in England which was an attempt to introduce a limited abortion facility but with 50 years on you now have had nearly nine million abortions, one in five pregnancies in Britain ends in abortion. I'm just shocked to think that these recommendations appear to be encouraging an even more liberal and unrestricted abortion regime for Ireland than we have in Britain.

"As I say, I'm deeply troubled by it. I just don't get it that the measure of a modern country and this is the word that's being used often - that Ireland needs to be modern.

"I just don't accept that a modern country is necessarily one which cannot protect the equal right to life of a mother and her unborn child. I don't believe that ultimately abortion is good for women, notwithstanding the fact that many liberal abortion regimes around the country, around the world, the abortion of girls is more prevalent than the abortion of boys. I just don't believe that ultimately abortion is the greatest promise that we can offer for women's health. And I think that really the place where we're coming from is that the amendment to the Constitution 43.3 was actually a very beautiful expression at the heart of our Constitution, that we hold the life of an unborn child and the life of the mother as equal and we pledge in our laws to do everything we can to protect both of those lives. That both of those lives matter and I think that's the measure of a country which is sensitive to life in all its moments. Perhaps what saddens me most about the discussions so far is that we are increasingly becoming desensitised to life. Life itself, and I think once we decide that one life is less important than another, we're into a very slippery ground for all of our laws because the right to life is the most fundamental of them all."

As the church faces a moment of truth on its influence on Irish society, what is his rallying cry to Catholics and what does he think will happen?

"In two words it would be 'Choose Life' and I would say that in doing that, in choosing life, that's life in it's broadest sense, the life of the mother is just as precious, valued and deserving of protection as the life of the unborn is precious, deserving of protection and deserving of value. And I don't see a discrepancy in holding those two lives in a fragile balance; there will always be very difficult decisions to take but in a very restricted liberal abortion regime we are essentially removing any right to life of the unborn. And we see that now; I suppose we've always said that the constitutional amendment held the two lives in balance, it's a very delicate balance and it's not an abortion to do your very best to protect both of those lives... sorry, it's not a direct killing, but to decide that one life is more significant than another life to me, it just undermines so much of what makes up a society.

"We will be appealing to the conscience of all people, not simply people of faiths. The church's voice is a significant voice but it's not the only voice and I think that we will be appealing to all people of goodwill to choose life. I really think that it has to be possible for Ireland to be a modern country, which is maybe a world leader in the protection of women, particularly during pregnancy which is a really difficult time for any woman.

"I think it's possible for Ireland to be a world leader to be modern in that sense without bringing in abortion on demand. That's probably as much as I would say at this stage."

Reflecting on the year ahead

On the Pope's visit

People are quite excited, they're interested, they're intrigued. Some of my school friends and maybe others who don't practise regularly themselves, are still fascinated with the idea that Pope Francis might come to Ireland. I think that if the visit of Pope Francis makes us stop and pause and think, for me that will be really worthwhile. If it's simply like another big celebrity coming to the country... you know, it will come and it will go. Pope Francis has a wonderful ability, through simple gesture not complicated conversation, to express and explain a message.

I would be hopeful that he might encourage people just to pause, to stop and reflect and think - and of course his theme, once more, is the theme of family.

On Brexit and Northern Ireland

This particular diocese, or archdiocese of Armagh straddles the Border. My parishes go from Magherafelt up in Co Derry to Cookstown in Co Tyrone to Armagh, then down to Dundalk, to Ardee and Drogheda. So right down that eastern coast of Ireland, North and South.

A lot of our parishes are border parishes - some on either side of the Border, some on both sides of the Border. So the issue of peace is something we hold very dear, and I'm conscious that 2018 is the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

I never stop giving thanks for the new space we are in. I grew up in Derry. I think of Christmas time, my grandparents, and my family home in Donegal. We had to cross a Border, we had to go through a checkpoint with guns pointing at us, we had to be searched - when I went to school our school bags were searched. We heard shooting, we heard bombs - and we heard daily of people being killed, many of them innocent civilians caught up in the middle of the awful conflict. So all I have to do is think back to my early years to realise the horror that was Northern Ireland in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, and to realise the tremendous achievement that was the peace process. Therefore, I say about the Good Friday Agreement: fragile, handle with care...

I'm disappointed that we seem to have gone into a kind of vacuum at the moment, with very little sense of direction. I know from speaking to my own friends, family and neighbours that people are frustrated, that there appears to be nothing happening. So at this time of the year, I once more encourage all those who have any part to play in the new year to redouble their efforts - hopefully in time for the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

On the Brexit discussions, once again I would urge caution. We talk a lot about hard borders and soft borders economically, but sometimes the language we use, the positions, the moral high ground we take on either side can be inflammatory when it comes to people on the ground.

On the coming year

I wish all readers of the Sunday Independent and their families every blessing during the Christmas season and the year. A special thanks to all those who came home to Ireland for a visit this Christmas, or sent a card or a message of good wishes. Family is all about connection and I pray that during 2018 our family links can grow stronger, that past hurts or disagreements can be healed, and that we will be there for each other in the struggles and challenges that the coming year may bring. God bless you all.

Sunday Independent

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