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Saturday 25 January 2020

Who's who: the power brokers

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin
Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

The story is told in Rome that Pope Leo XIII, whose Papacy straddled the turn of the 19th to 20th century, sent a representative to Ireland to report on the state of the Church here. Upon returning to the Vatican, the Pope enquired of the envoy: "How are the Irish bishops?"

"I didn't find any bishops in Ireland, just 26 Popes!" was the curt reply.

The tale has often been resurrected to illustrate the extent to which Irish bishops notoriously guard their own territory and prerogatives. But that may be a thing of the past as the Church faces a once-in-a-generation seismic shift.

The face of the Irish hierarchy is changing bit by bit - and this will continue apace as more senior clerics reach the mandatory retirement age of 75.

The old guard is on the way out - potentially clearing the ground for reform. But who are the key players?

While Diarmuid Martin has been dominant in Dublin for more than a decade, his namesake in Armagh, Eamon Martin, remains the country's most-senior cleric. At 54, Eamon Martin will be expected to lead the Church in Ireland for more than two decades to come and has asserted himself with impressive media performances since his 2013 appointment. While both men have differing emphases, they are ad idem on the need for the Church to continue working to restore public confidence after more than two decades of punishing revelations.

Pope Francis has insisted that bishops work closely with local communities - and his representative in Ireland, Archbishop Charles Brown, has worked to choose such men.

Limerick's Brendan Leahy; Waterford & Lismore's Phonsie Cullinan; Elphin's Kevin Doran; and Kildare & Leighlin's Denis Nulty are all in their fifties, but they also hold in common a vision of the Church that upholds traditional teaching while embracing ways to teach out to the wider contemporary culture, particular younger people. All have just returned from leading groups to World Youth Day in Poland.

The old guard in the hierarchy is, perhaps, best-represented by men like Michael Smith in Meath - a bishop since 1983 - and John Kirby in Clonfert, who has served on the episcopal bench.

Insiders say that both men have been staunch defenders of the status quo. But, along with Cork's Bishop John Buckley and Raphoe's Philip Boyce, they are due to be replaced in coming months and their departure will mark a decisive shift from the past. The times, they are a changing.

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