Hope has a vital role in helping us to face life’s challenges: that will be a key message of the future Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dermot Farrell.
The farmer’s son from Co Westmeath, who walks 20 kilometres a day, said: “The Church is in the business of hope.”
He steps into the shoes of retiring Archbishop Diarmuid Martin next month at a time of enormous challenge for an archdiocese with a population of more than a million people.
He said he will follow in Dr Martin’s footsteps in always listening to the victims of clerical sexual abuse, and he will listen to other voices, including the voices of young people.
In a frank interview with the Sunday Independent, he said Covid-19 has stopped public masses but it is private prayer that is “the bedrock” of spiritual life.
He said dwindling congregations and falling numbers of priests in recent years have meant local lay communities must decide on the future of “surplus” church buildings, but he would not be coming with “a wrecking ball”.
The 66-year-old has been Bishop of Ossory for the past three years, based in Kilkenny city. He was president of Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth for 11 years until 2007. He was then appointed parish priest of Dunboyne and Kilbride in Co Meath, where he was pastor for the next 11 years.
He grew up on his family’s farm in the townland of Garthy, outside Castletown-Geoghegan, the eldest of seven children. His father went to mass every morning and young Dermot became an altar server.
The children joined their parents in the family rosary at night.
“Sometimes we resisted. We weren’t always the most willing devotees, but we said our decade,” he said.
When he was seven years old, his little sister Regina died. She was three years old and had a congenital condition “which probably nowadays would have been correctable”.
“She died on my mother’s birthday, strangely enough. It’s a memory that has lived with me, seeing that white coffin,” he said.
As the eldest child, he did a lot of work on the farm, helping with the animals, milking cows, and “pulling calves,” especially in the busy calving season of springtime.
As a boarding school pupil in Saint Finian’s College in Mullingar, he had an interest in veterinary matters and the sciences. However, he applied for the priesthood and was sent by the Bishop of Meath to study at Maynooth.
As part of his degree he studied mathematics and experimental physics. A vocation is rarely “a bolt of lightning” and in his years in Maynooth he tried to discern, with the help of others, if the priesthood was the right path for him.
The biggest emphasis of his formation training to be a priest was on academic matters, “with little emphasis on the human side”, he said.
Formation training for the priesthood at Maynooth is very different nowadays as there is a more balanced approach with spiritual, pastoral and intellectual formation and the human aspect of the training is “absolutely critical”, said Farrell.
One of his biggest worries as a clerical student was whether he would be capable of performing priestly duties at a fatal crash scene. He spent his first four years as a priest in Mullingar and he found himself dealing with those tragedies.
“Inevitably, anyone in pastoral ministry ends up dealing with tragedies, traffic accidents, suicides, accidental deaths. They are traumatic. It’s when you get back and you are on your own, that’s when it’s difficult. But you never become hardened in that sense. You just feel the tragedy of other people. They are traumatic for everyone involved.”
Suicides have become more prevalent and searching for words to try to bring some comfort and hope is difficult, he said.
While the bereaved family sitting in the front pews at the funeral may be too numb to take in what is being said, there are other young people present who will be listening and open and “it is important to speak of the situation”.
He said it involved trying to say to them: “If you have issues, you need to talk to somebody because there is no problem, no matter how bad it is, that can’t be dealt with. It might seem to you that you can’t tell anybody and it can’t be sorted but the reality is it can be sorted.”
His own favourite ways of getting some recreation down through the years include visiting the family farm run by his brother Vincent, where he gets involved in some farm activity and walks the land.
“It gets you completely into a different space. The same is true of gardening if you can go out with your spade and hoe. I love gardening. I’m more interested in trees and shrubs and bulbs as they are more manageable if I only have time once a week or every 10 days.”
He uses a lawnmower at his home in Kilkenny. “The garden is on the side of a hill. It’s a hard mow because you are mowing on a 45-degree slope and it’s not a ‘ride upon’,” he said.
He is “a good, strong walker” and said “in the last 12 months I’ve averaged 20 kilometres a day, if you can believe those apps on the phone”.
He also enjoys watching hurling and going to the theatre.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a big challenge, but while there are no public masses in Level 5, people can still light candles and pray in churches.
“Sometimes we have this tendency to reduce the church and public worship to mass only. But private prayer is the bedrock,” he said.
In Level 3, big churches are “the safest buildings on earth” where people can sit several metres apart.
Throughout Dublin, there is “surplus infrastructure” and many churches have falling numbers attending.
Faith communities will increasingly be faced with decisions about meeting the costs of the upkeep of so many churches and parish houses with fewer active church members.
Although people have been generous during the pandemic, finances are “a function of numbers” and the closure of buildings will be a matter for communities.
“The community will have to discern that rather than somebody coming down, or the bishop coming down with a wrecking ball. It is very emotive. People are very attached to their parish church,” Farrell said.
When he takes up his new role as archbishop next month, his first message will be one of hope.
“First of all, the church is in the business of hope. A sure hope. And that hope is always founded on reality. It’s not wishful or naive thinking.
“What hope does is transformative and it enables us and empowers us to embrace the life in front of us. Life always has hurdles… with hope one will be able to cross those hurdles.
“The second message is we do need to listen. To be a more listening church. We haven’t been a good listening church in the past. God always speaks to us through people and sometimes those are not always the ones who shout loudest. There are voices there that can be surprising voices, the voices of the young, the voices of people who are quiet.”
When taking up his new role in Dublin, he will follow Archbishop Martin’s lead in listening to victims of clerical sexual abuse and prioritising the safety of children.
“Safeguarding is not something you can do once. You have to have constant vigilance. The danger is complacency…We constantly need to review those structures,” he said.
“Any allegations made to the local liaison person must be immediately reported to gardaí and the HSE as it’s a criminal matter and church people should not try to investigate themselves. And that’s what wasn’t there in the past.
“Very often, it wasn’t investigated at all. There was denial, refusal to accept. Lives got destroyed. Victims had their whole lives ruined.”
He also spoke about nature being under attack.
“When the earth is ravaged or pillaged, it creates some of the problems we have today like the huge transmigrations of people out of Africa.
“These people are trying to survive, to get a life for themselves. In Africa the level of poverty is phenomenal. We talk about poverty in Ireland but there are safety nets here – in those countries there are no nets.
“They are our brothers and sisters and we should help these people try and create a life for themselves. To embrace them rather than reject them and creating ghettos and racism.
“These people bring a lot of skills. Some are highly educated, it’s very important to welcome them or we are going to create problems for ourselves in the future.
“If we ghettoise these people we’ll end up like parts of America where it becomes a big issue, and that’s going to create social unrest.”
As the new archbishop prepares for his arrival in Dublin next month, he accepts: “There are plenty of challenges ahead.”
By courtesy of the Alan O’Keeffe, Irish Independent