Archbishop Diarmuid Martin reflects on past decade

Full interview with head of Dublin diocese by Patsy McGarry

Sat, Apr 19, 2014, 06:33

Have you enjoyed the job? “Yes. I am doing 40 Confirmations this year and it’s great meeting, listening and talking to people at an important moment in their lives. You see I like my native city, always did. I’m very much aware of the fact the archdiocese of Dublin isn’t just Dublin city. I’ve really tried to ensure that the services the diocese provides are the same quality in big towns such as Athy, Wicklow and Arklow.”

What about the rumour that you may be en route back to Rome at Pope Francis’s request? “That was a perception greatly cultivated by a number of journalists on the basis of, effectively, clerical gossip. Anybody who tries to interpret Pope Francis’s ideas doesn’t know what they are talking about. Pope Francis reveals his intention when he has done it.”

Looking at Ireland now what do you think where attitudes generally are concerned? “We have to develop a mature relationship with our past, our present, with secularisation and with the strong commitment and interest of people of faith in this country, who are still there. We have to find ways which are creative, which allow each of us to flourish in our own traditions. And also to flourish in public in our traditions.

What about pluralism in schools? “I took a lead because I believe we will only have pluralism when, in schools, there’s a plurality of patronage which allows people of different traditions to flourish within their tradition and that those who want a faith-based education will be allowed to have that and those who want something different, they also have a civic right to have that provided for them. It doesn’t mean that Catholic schools would simply be Catholic ghettoes. No one would want that.

“We’ve given a lead but are still running into difficulties and challenges, usually around local issues. Maybe, for the future, a more robust collaboration between the Department (of Education) and the Church would make these things move a little quickly. Consultation is a slow process and it isn’t moving quickly

The demography of Ireland is quite complex. Demographers will say that by 2050 the population may come back to the mythical eight million figure and more than of those will live on a narrow strip along the east coast, which means a huge number will be in the archdiocese of Dublin. We have more children under four than we have people over 70 in Dublin. We have an ageing population and a very young population. Talking to one parish priest the other day he had 330 baptisms last year, that’s 10 school classes. We have to be looking at that.”

What about the ideological battles between conservatives and liberals in Ireland today? “We have to learn to fight our agendas robustly but respectfully. I still say we’re a stage in secularisation in Ireland where there are still what I call adolescent elements, on both sides, who are reacting rather than coming into mature debate. If I look at the debate on religious pluralism in Germany, or in Switzerland, or even in Italy it’s a very different type of debate. The religious culture of Ireland is actually very complex and quite original. You can get into a debate and get hit in the face by one side unexpectedly.”

What is the position of Irish Catholic hospitals when it comes to implementing measures allowed by the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act? “As yet the Government has to produce guidelines. Hospitals have an ethos. In some cases that ethos is contractual and can’t be legally broken. I would hope there’d room for conscientious objection of individuals, which again hasn’t been defined. I believe that most of our hospitals have been dealing with the conflicts covered in the new legislation in a very serious manner and one which protects the life and health of all people. We shouldn’t lose that.”

What of the derogation in equality legislation which allows churches to not employ people in schools and hospital whose lifestyle is deemed not to be compatible with their ethos? I refer to gay people, single mothers, co-habiting couples. “I believe that the more pluralism we have in types of school then individuals who’ve got problems of ethos or personal questions would be free to find a place where they would be happy with the ethos.

What about teachers in particular? “In the discussion on divesting and pluralism in education not enough has been said about teachers. I’m not happy with somebody who really doesn’t believe, being forced to be the religious education teacher in a school. It isn’t what I would want in a Catholic school. There has to be a way for teachers to be able to move to the type of school where they would be happier in accordance with their own conscience and convictions. A further complication is that there’s nothing more local than the local school and there’s nothing more complex than teacher politics. If we want to move forward into a truly pluralist system, then we have to find ways of accommodating people and of everybody taking a courageous stance over their convictions.”

How do you see the future of the archdiocese? “At the moment the number of priests has gone below 400 for first time. Of those about 130 are retired, out of ministry, sick, so on. For 199 parishes we’ve got about 250 active diocesan priests. The age ratio very high. We have the support of religious congregations in 20 or so parishes. We have at the moment one parish without a priest.

In the past year liturgies are well attended with real participation. There’s something happening with very strong lay participation. I can’t explain this but in the past 12 months this has become more visible to me. The decrease in priests’ income, that’s stabilising. In some areas there’s been a stabilisation in Mass attendance. Are we stabilising at too low a level? I think we are. This is where we need a much stronger missionary outreach, particularly to young people, to help them feel within themselves what we felt at their age in an understanding of faith and commitment.

“We have to reach out to that strange gap between faith and public life. Right across Europe you have a group of people, who even enter politics, faith-driven in that their concept of politics as a service comes from their faith. To some extent the Church retreated from a strong cultural presence because the strong cultural presence we inherited was not the right one and was being rejected, and therefore we might be retreating back away from that.

“The diocese that I came into is a very different diocese today. It is a better diocese. I don’t look for praise for leadership. I’m not doing it, priests are doing it. Despite everything we have enough priests to continue for a number of years. We’re not in the dramatic situation of Latin America and so on. I think the parish of the future will look very different. And many of the things priests are doing will be done by others. The priest will be the one who will lead the liturgy but even the liturgy will be different. Going out to the parishes I’m finding this is already taking place and it isn’t a devaluation of the role of the priest. It’s a different relationship. If that develops and flourishes I think we’re going to have a more vibrant, a smaller church.