New man at Church's helm
BISHOP-elect of Kerry, Raymond A Browne, will be ordained this coming Sunday in Killarney Cathedral. He follows in the footsteps of Bishop Bill Murphy who was ordained in September, 1995, following Bishop Diarmaid Ó Súilleabháin's death in 1994.
The County Westmeath man was born in January 1957 in Athlone and was ordained a priest in July 1982. A graduate of UCC, St Patrick's Maynooth and the Gregorian University Rome, he has been Parish Priest of Kilgefin Parish, Co Roscommon, since 2008.
His elevation to Bishop caught many by surprise, not alone himself, and he has been quickly coming to terms with the forthcoming move.
The Kerryman spoke to the Bishop-elect ahead of his ordination on Sunday to hear his thoughts on the move and to discuss other issues presently affecting the Church.
When did you first know your name was in the hat to become Bishop?
"I was never made aware that my name was in a hat. The first awareness was when the Nuncio wanted to see me. I got a phone call on a Monday night at 7pm and I met the Nuncio at 11am the following morning and that was his news for me: 'The Pope has chosen you, do you accept?'.
"It totally came out of the blue and I genuinely felt that others would be more capable but I have been hugely encouraged by the confidence people have in me.
"People are saying 'you're the type of person we want as out Bishop'. That was the people who knew I was going to Kerry but had I been chosen to be their Bishop they may have said it differently!
"Seriously, though, I am genuinely looking forward to it now. The news was almost three months ago so I've had this time to think myself into it."
How have you prepared for the role?
"In terms of preparation, I've been here in Kerry for a few days every second week. I've been also saying goodbye above.
"When you think about a new world it's amazing how you see your own world differently and, in many ways, just leaving my Parish has given me a fresh sense of Parish and Diocese.
"So preparations have been thinking my way into it and part of that has been a lot of prayer. I did a retreat with the priests of my own Elphin Diocese and all that has been a key part of that.
"In many ways I've remembered moves in the past and I've been lucky. It's been quite hard for priests living every day of their lives in the Parish which is very constant but I've spent half my life in an office.
"I have been processing marriage nullity applications where I was head of the office and every ministry I've been in, each has it's own learning experience.
"I've worked with youths as a school chaplain, in Parish life I was heavily involved in the St Vincent de Paul in Sligo, in the Marriage Tribunal I worked with Church Law and, more importantly, with people and their relationships trying to understand and make sense where relationships went wrong and where marriages broke down.
"So, in combination, I've seen all sides of life so I think that will benefit me greatly in the Diocese."
As regards the current abortion legislation, should politicians who voted for it be excommunicated?
"I'm not aware of any significant move within the church that excommunication was an appropriate response. I just feel that it has been a red herring, it's been others outside the church who have ben infatuated with excommunication.
"It's best to stand back and recognise that if it's the first time in Ireland that a law seems to facilitate abortion - even if it is in very, very restricted circumstances in the law - you can see how there is a sadness there.
"It's not just an Irish issue, worldwide people feel strongly about the issue of abortion. Life in its fullness points to the fundamental right to life of every human being, from the moment of conception in our mother's womb, to the moment of our natural death.
"The fundamental right to life, the dignity and value of every human life, that's the value the Church will always stand for. Worldwide, many, many people of different religions and none will always stand for that value, that human life is sacred.
"Recently the Knock vigil theme was 'choose life mother and baby'. Our constitution cherishes both mother and baby and it's sad, at times, where in some speeches in the Dail they seem to be just speaking on one side.
"It's back to that basic value, human life is sacred, it's not just a Christian value, it's a fundamental human value and something they believe. Life in its fullness points to the fundamental right to life of every human being from the moment of conception in our mother's womb to the moment of our natural death.
Isn't the abortion debate a healthy one considering that consecutive governments seem to have ignored the issue?
"It's healthy that it's discussed provided people discuss it calmly and respectfully. People have differences but people also agree on a lot of things. Maybe it's important to get the balance in discussion at all levels, whether in the Dáil, in the media or in a bar, and it's healthy to go building bridges and have people emphasise their common values - let's not be about burning bridges and burning each other's bridges."
What can we do to address the chronic shortage of priests at present?
"Every Diocese has sought to promote vocations and will continue to seek to promote vocations.
"We'll look at it in a level headed way, God's will be done and who knows what God has in mind - the world is evolving.
"With less priests it will bring out the best in the laity, people will be more and more aware of their faith, taking responsibility for the living of the faith and the handing on of the faith.
"So there's good news as well as bad news and it's how we handle it and respond. We don't know in advance what the answer is going to be.
"The reality is less and less priests but the challenge is for the Parish to still be fully alive and for the Christian community to live with hope and love as God intended, irrespective as to whether there are few or many priests.
"Meanwhile, in my own Diocese we have ordained five deacons in the past year and they are beginning their ministry and we have two deacons in Kerry for ordination within 18 months.
"It's an exciting and important time for the Church in Ireland, it's the first time ordinary men have been chosen who have done their preparation. They have their role and their ministry, they're capable of doing it, let them get on with it , working with their priests.
Isn't it a worrying time, the fact that we have so few vocations?
"Maybe it's similar to family life in the recession, couples with young children find that the blueprint that they had which they were confident in has been torn up.
"Their economics has gone haywire, that's a worrying time but it's amazing how they will gain their confidence, find their feet and rear their family.
"They're going to have a full home life, so similarly for the Parish and the church there is a huge challenge there. It's worrying not having priests for Parishes but as a church we'll get on with it."
As the Diocesan Designated Person for Safeguarding Children in Elphin since 2008, how can you help further develop structures in Kerry?
"We have done good work in Elphin where I have been the designated person and I see similar structures here, excellent structures here in Kerry.
"Safeguarding is vital. To create the best possible environment at all times where children are safe, where things can't go wrong.
"That work is not in a Diocesan office, it's for every area and it's for every individual to take full responsibility.
"A good thing is that the church has done a lot of work that has benefited communities overall, the GAA all sorts of youth organisations, we have helped each other.
"We have to continue to be vigilant where the least things can go wrong, it involves everything from personal safety, from a partition not falling down and killing someone, through to sexual abuse."
You worked in the Galway Marriage Regional Tribunal as a staff member from July 1988 to July 1995 and Judicial Vicar from October 2002 to July 2008. How did this affect your attitude to marriage?
"At times there's a significant body of people out there, i in terms of Ireland and England as a whole, who feel that marriage is a joke that we no longer need it and it belongs to a different world.
"I do think that marriage is a fundamental building block in society. Pope John Paul said that the future of humanity passes by way of marriage in the family. I do think that lifelong relationships is the source of children.
"The tribunal gave me a wonderful belief in relationships. It's amazing how often failed relationships testify to the value of relationships. There was a lot of marriages that broke down where there was wonderful humanity and goodness. Ultimately the relationship broke up but you'd be proud of them and humbled in the efforts people made.
"So my time in the tribunal gave me an insight into people of all ages in good times and in bad times.
"For instance, if you suffer from depression it doesn't mean you can't be married and to see how people have lived and loved, accepting each other's difficulties, has been a very humbling experience for me.
"I learned an awful lot about life, relationships and people and about goodness in a real sense. Christianity isn't so much about how we handle the good times, Christianity is how we handle difficulties. But I would feel marriage is vital in society."
Finally, what similarities are there between the Diocese of Elphin and Kerry?
"In many ways the Church isn't that different from Diocese to Diocese and there's an identical urban-rural mix between the Kerry and Elphin Diocese, so there are huge similarities.
"The Kerry Diocese has its own spirit and character and made its own choices different from our Diocese, so it's interesting to see we're aiming at the same thing but choosing slightly different paths.
"It's exciting to see the great work that has been done here. There's so many organisations such as TeenSpirit, KDYS, Ardfert Retreat Centre, the Diocesan Pastoral Centre and Accord and going around the towns and seeing the Parish centres, so much is happening.
"I've been greatly impressed by the work in the Kerry Diocese over the last 10 to 15 years and, surely, that's a great tribute to Bishop Bill to the work he has done.