With half of Dublin’s priests over 70 and due to retire within the next five years and congregations ageing and declining, the Archbishop-elect Dermot Farrell of Dublin faces the job of managing decline.
These problems are now exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, not least financially, with income down by up to 80 per cent in Dublin during the first lockdown last spring and priests’ income cut by 25 per cent.
Noting the losses, Archbishop-elect Farrell said pointedly that people responded “generously where the priest was visible, on the webcam, Facebook. In parishes where nothing went on, they’re the ones who suffered most”.
Priests’ income had to be reduced, but they still have jobs, “a lot less expenses” and “nowhere to spend the money” that they do have. By contrast, many of their parishioners have lost their jobs or their businesses, he pointed out.
In a world “where there are fewer priests”, every parish in the archdiocese will have to change and some will amalgamate, but this will be done in consultation with priests and parishioners, not over their heads.
“[It is about] talking to the people, it’s talking to the priests, listening. These are their churches, their faith communities. It’s not going to be the Archbishop, or Archbishop’s House going round saying, ‘Close this church’.”
Some duties do not need priests, and the laity will have to become more involved, and to be allowed to become involved in liturgy and in running parishes: “For example, a removal doesn’t need a priest,” he told The Irish Times.
Though regarded as a conservative, Archbishop-elect Farrell is open to some ideas, if not others. Women priests could split the Catholic Church, as the issue has done with the Church of England, but he favours women deacons.
“I would. Women have almost preserved the faith in the church, certainly in this country and probably beyond,” he said, speaking during a lengthy interview by telephone because of coronavirus restrictions.
On mandatory celibacy for Catholic priests, Archbishop-elect Farrell shows some flexibility: “There is a value in celibacy, there is a sacrifice involved. I do think it is an important part of the Catholic tradition.”
However, he noted that in the Eastern Orthodox churches “you have the celibate language and you have the married language. You have to make a choice before you are ordained, usually, in those churches”.
The church already has permanent married deacons, “but they do undertake that if their wife dies, they can’t remarry”. Asked if the Orthodox model could be applied, he felt “it could be discussed” as could choice in celibacy.
Pope Francis has given Catholics “a great lead” on homosexuality, said Archbishop-elect Farrell, adding that the church’s description of it as a “strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil” is language disliked by the pope.
However, he is adamant on blessings for divorced people, or same-sex couples: “Once you start blessing things like that people are going to construe that as a marriage. We can’t have that sort of situation in the church.”
On schools, he said “that if a politician comes up to me and says they’d like to divest that school, well then I’d put it to the people”. In the meantime, Catholic schools respect children of all faiths and “are not proselytising”.
On attitudes within the church, he said some traditionalists are “hostile towards anyone that doesn’t agree”. “That’s disrespectful. They have to respect the views of others who may not have the same commitment they have.”
The church already has “great diversity”, he argued: “It embraces everyone from the person who might go only once or twice in a lifetime to people who go three times a day to pray and it is able to hold all of those people together.”
Asked if there should be a national synod on the future of the church in Ireland, Archbishop-elect Farrell believes that synodality – where the views of everyone in the church are heard, not just bishops and clergy – is “far more important”.
“The hand of God is in it, God’s providence is in it,” he went on, “the plan, for want of a better word, is only going to emerge in some sort of dialogue among people and clergy, everybody, the stakeholders”.
In 2002, during his term as president in Maynooth, it emerged that one of his predecessors and “a distant cousin”, Msgr Micheál Ledwith, who resigned unexpectedly in 1994 within a year of completing his 10-year term, had faced child sex abuse allegations at the time, which he denied.
Archbishop-elect Farrell said he first became aware of the allegations in “May 2002, when trying to assemble what the facts were” following media queries. An inquiry under SC, Denis McCullough was then held, which reported in June 2005. “I think I was the one who asked for an inquiry,” he said.
“I wasn’t aware of why he [Msgr Ledwith] stood down in ‘94. I wasn’t involved. I was there obviously. The reason that he gave for stepping aside to people at the top, people in the leadership at the college at the time, was that Maynooth’s bicentenary was coming up and everybody was anticipating his retirement and he was going to go basically ahead of time. Subsequently I became aware, long after, of the allegations.
“Obviously somebody knew about them [allegations] because they emerged later, if you look at McCullough and Murphy.” Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy conducted a statutory inquiry into the handling of child sexual abuse allegations in Ferns diocese. His report was published in October 2005.
Msgr Ledwith, laicised in 2005, was a priest of Ferns diocese.
Archbishop-elect Farrell said both reports showed that Ferns diocese was aware of the allegations against Msgr Ledwith. “That would be proper, as the normal way things were dealt with through the diocese and Cardinal Daly [then Catholic Primate] was aware.”
He continued: “Whether Cardinal Daly informed the trustees I don’t know. I don’t know what discussions there were between himself and Bishop [of Ferns] Comiskey but I can certainly tell you the leadership of the college – and I wasn’t the president at that time, I was vice president – I wasn’t told by anybody, either by Bishop Comiskey nor by Cardinal Daly nor indeed by any of the other trustees, and I am not too sure when the trustees actually became aware of those allegations.”
He has had no contact with Msgr Ledwith since 2002. “The last time I spoke to him was when that statement was issued. I was asked by the trustees to contact him and to alert him that statement was coming out.”
On child safeguarding, his soon-to-be-predecessor Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has given “very courageous” leadership: “Maybe, cometh the hour cometh the man. It was what was required in Dublin.”
Later this month, the church will face the publication of the mother and babies commission report into mostly Catholic-run institutions: “I don’t think you can ever be prepared for these reports when they come out.”
It was “a dark chapter in Irish history and, like everything else, it has to come out, we have to face up to it and society has to face up to it. That’s what we did to people who were very vulnerable in 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s,” he said.
By courtesy, Patsy McGarry, The Irish Times