Growing speculation that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin will step down

Question remains if Rome will allow the Dublin Archbishop to go

Speculation that the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin is about to step down has intensified following a recent interview, which observers felt reflected his growing tiredness in the role.

Asked about his future on RTÉ’s This Week programme last weekend, he said, “It would be good, not just that I retire, but that there would be a different leadership in the church, a younger one, because we are facing very different challenges”.

But he said it was up to Pope Francis to decide when change would happen.

Many have remarked on Archbishop Martin’s visible tiredness these days.


"He has aged five years in the last two," said a source. It is hardly surprising. His 15 years as archbishop have been among the most stormy in Dublin's history, due mainly to the traumatic issue of clerical child sex. And this year is opportune for change as both Auxiliary Bishops of Dublin Ray Field and Eamonn Walsh will be 75 in 2019 and facing retirement.

The question is whether Rome will allow Archbishop Martin go.

With 1.16 million Catholics, 197 parishes, and 238 churches, the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin is by far the biggest Catholic diocese on the island of Ireland. It is why its Archbishop tends to be the most powerful prelate in the church. And why Diarmuid Martin's departure and replacement could be so important for the Catholic Church in Ireland.

He will be 74 in April and, regardless, must submit his letter of resignation to Pope Francis by April 2020 when he is 75, as required by canon law. However, as a well-informed source put it, “It’s as clear as day he wants out.”

Back in 2001, then Archbishop Desmond Connell wanted to stand down as he approached 75 in March that year. Rome made him a cardinal in February 2001.

He hung on, reluctantly, for another three years as Rome searched desperately for a successor. That was Archbishop Martin, who Pope John Paul had to ask twice to accept the post before he finally agreed. Being Archbishop of Dublin is not a coveted position.

As of now there are no indications that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin will get a red hat. But Ireland’s only cardinal, Cardinal Seán Brady, will be 80 next August and will then lose his (and Ireland’s) right to vote in a papal election. Rome might be tempted to wave a red hat in Archbishop Martin’s direction, and not least as there is no obvious successor-in-waiting.

As of now, however, 2019 presents an opportunity in Dublin for the appointment of an entire cadre of new leadership and the energy that would bring at a time when a fresh start there and in the Irish Catholic Church generally is so much needed.

But what should that leadership bring with it?

Delegate and inspire

Economist and practising Catholic Finola Kennedy has some ideas but was at pains to emphasise that nothing of what she said “implies that Diarmuid Martin did not have any or all of the qualities I suggest”. A quality she would value most in a new archbishop would be “courage . . . not only the recognition of wrong but the affirmation of right”.

There was also a "need to affirm the enormous positive contribution which has been made by nuns, priests and brothers," she said. A new archbishop "must find ways to engage with the laity of all ages. How would the homeless fare without the work of, for example, Alice Leahy, or the Morning Star and Regina Coeli hostels or Simon?"

He will need to delegate and inspire priests and laity to live their lives as Christians to the full. He will also need to look at "offering children the gospel story outside school hours" and be "prepared to grasp the changed social realities of family life". She noted how in Dublin in 2017 "slightly over 50 per cent of marriages involved Roman Catholic ceremonies compared with over 90 per cent in 1960." She also hoped "the new archbishop has a good sense of humour."

One well-placed source is worried and unequivocal. “Archbishop Diarmuid Martin is the best thing to happen to the Catholic Church in Ireland since the Reformation. He is head and shoulders above any peer in Ireland or elsewhere and his successor will make or break the church.”

This source continued: “get Dublin wrong and Diarmuid Martin’s formidable legacy will be set at nought. And rapidly.”

Among possible successors considered likely by this source would be Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin Denis Nulty, Bishop Paul Tighe at the Vatican, Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy, Archbishop of Cashel Kieran O'Rielly, Rector of the Irish College in Rome Msgr Ciarán O'Carroll, or his predecessor and now Bishop of Killala John Fleming.

Each had “the strong pastoral skills needed to hold together a broad Church of progressives and conservatives, dissenters and cheerleaders,” the source said.

On the other hand, Bishop of Elphin Kevin Doran and Bishop of Waterford and Lismore Phonsie Cullinane had "the ultra-conservatism needed to reduce the church to Pope Benedict's small church of the obedient and cause implosion."

The source added, "None of the rest (of the Irish bishops) have the force of courage or character to lead the Dublin archdiocese. That includes Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin, Bishop of Down & Connor Noel Treanor and Bishop of Raphoe Alan McGuckian." They were described by the source as "all disappointing company men."

This person added, “Don’t overlook Denis Nulty. Young! Hugely insightful and pastorally innovative, laity-sensitive, victims-sensitive. Courageous and not likely to succumb to the bullies. Very likeable and humble.” His was the “best appointment in a long time as was Leahy’s [Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy].”

Fr Joe McDonald, administrator at St Matthew's in Ballyfermot, said "I am going to miss Diarmuid Martin. I think he has a lot of fine qualities." He felt the archbishop had been "especially good in safeguarding" and was "a good media performer."

But, Fr McDonald added: “I dread the appointment of his successor. I would love to believe that they will do something new and exciting. Sadly I think they will play safe. He will be in-house. He will be safe. He will be neat, tidy, predictable and conservative. He will be academic. He will be theologically sound and politically correct.”

His “dream for the next archbishop of Dublin is that he would be both prophet and shepherd. The last thing the people in Ballyfermot need is a guy with a big thick Roman collar, incense in one hand and canon law in the other.” What was needed was a “daring prophetic and a self-sacrificing warm, caring shepherd.”

Frances O’Brien (36) a teacher of English and religion at the Teresian school in Dublin’s Donnybrook, believes young people like her and her secondary school pupils wanted a new archbishop to be “a social justice leader. Someone who will take up issues like climate change and homelessness, now that the Archbishop [Martin] has made the church a safe place for children.”

They wanted “a fearless leader willing to speak out and who is good at communication and who will take on our governments on what is not happening especially when everything is about spin.”

For her and many younger Catholics the church was now in a post-abuse situation. “The reality is that most of the abuse happened before I was born,” she said. She would also like to see women play a far greater role in church life, including in liturgy, and would welcome the return to women deacons.

A man who is very active in church affairs in Dublin believes “the great legacy of Archbishop Martin is child safeguarding”, but the next archbishop must be “more pastoral and more involved with young people who are hanging on by their fingertips.” He also felt a synod of the church in Dublin was “much needed.”

Likely successors he felt “should be around 60” and might include Pro Cathedral administrator Fr Kieran McDermott or the rector of the Irish College in Rome Msgr Ciarán O’Carroll.

He felt Bishop of Elphin Kevin Doran ought to be a contender as “he’s not afraid to stand up to the politicians, as we see on abortion. Maybe his wilderness years are over.” But he too felt what was needed was “a Denis Nulty-type person who reaches out to people and not just in the church.”

Abuse survivor Marie Collins is anxious about Archbishop Martin standing down. "He was everything you would want," when it came to child safeguading, she said.

In her wide experience of dealing with senior church figures on the issue, up to and including Pope Francis, she said, “Archbishop Martin is one of the best. I’ve never made any secret of that. He is the most experienced in the Western church and has handled the issue extremely well.” What he had achieved in the area “is a template for the church,” she said.

His successor should be “a modern pastoral archbishop, who would be good with the laity and forward-looking.” Archbishop Martin would be “a loss” and she hoped that after him the church in Dublin “doesn’t fall back into the old ways”.

Jonathan O'Keeffe (37) has been active in parish work in his native Co Kildare and latterly in the Johnstown- Killiney parish in Dublin where he has been the youngest member of the parish pastoral council. He believes the next archbishop and auxiliary bishops in Dublin should be "pastors."

Dealing with the abuse issue “took its toll” on the current leadership. “Very difficult decisions had to be made, protocols had to be put in place,” he said.

He felt there had to be a greater role for laity in church affairs, including in liturgy, than was allowed to date. “We’re looking at a situation where there won’t be a full Mass,” due to a lack of priests, he said, and “there will have to be more lay-led prayer services”.

Also, he said, “We have to get the young involved and running things. They will need to allow laity have more free rein in general and priests will have to let go of the control factor,” he said.

Another priest in Dublin said it was essential that the positive developments around child safeguarding were sustained by a new archbishop. There was also a need for a church synod in Ireland such as that called by the Archbishop of Armagh (later Archbishop of Dublin) Paul Cullen at Thurles in 1850 and which laid the groundwork for the Catholic Church that has dominated in Ireland since.

Among those he felt would make a good archbishop of Dublin would be Bishop Brendan Leahy, Fr Richard Sheehy, Moderator in the Glasnevin group of parishes, or Fr Andrew O'Sullivan, Moderator of the Sandyford group of parishes.

This priest said, “What Dublin needs above all at this stage is a real pastor with a common touch and more empathy with the priests who feel very roughed up by Diarmuid Martin.”

He added that while he was an admirer of Archbishop Martin’s he was “in a very small minority” among his colleagues. He described Archbishop Martin as “gifted when dealing with your colleagues [in the media] and genuinely very good at it but much less so with his own.”

In this priest’s view the next archbishop should be “a Dublin priest, not someone parachuted in.”

'Hopeful but not confident'

But it should not be Bishop Kevin Doran (a Dublin priest) or Bishop of Waterford and Lismore Phonsie Cullinan as "the last thing we need in Dublin is a cultural warrior." In general, the priest believed, "the intellectual gene pool" from which to choose a new Archbishop was "way down".

Fr Brendan Hoban, co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priests, said he was "hopeful but not confident that we'll get the archbishop of Dublin (or the other bishops) we need, primarily because of the secretive but clearly limited consultation process that usually ends up with those making the decisions replicating themselves in the appointments they make."

Traditionally, with the appointment of bishops, the qualities needed “courage, imagination and creativity – are the ones that have been carefully avoided. ‘A safe pair of hands’, as heretofore new bishops were often positively designated, is exactly the kind of bishop we don’t need. That ship has passed by.”

What’s needed now, he said, “are not a retinue of defensive corner-backs, but creative midfielders who relish the challenge of opening up possibilities for radical moves in the future.”

He continued, “We’re in Titanic country so there’s no point replicating past strategies that have clearly failed. Radical change is the only serious option now and with Pope Francis pointing the way we need bishops who are prepared to follow his lead in taking a fresh and radical change of direction.”

What was needed was “someone brave enough to confront those who want to take us back to the 19th century. Someone secure enough in their own skin to be able to live with complexity and ambivalence. Someone who is not afraid to speak and do the truth, regardless. Someone who is comfortable speaking about God and the absence of God in a rapidly changing culture,” Fr Hoban said.

But it was Fr Joe McDonald who indicated most clearly the task facing the next archbishop of Dublin. His job will be “so colossal.”

It will involve “the closing of about a third of our churches; the sale of huge tracts of church land and property; the divesting of about half of our schools; the suspension of the Sacrament of Confirmation for about three years; the closing down of seminaries replaced with an apprenticeship/ mentor style model; the inclusion of women in every aspect, including governance, of church life; complete overall of Holy Communion taking it out of school; repair of the damage done to the LGBT community; huge work to be done on adult faith formation; massive task around new vision of human sexuality.”

And that is just for starters.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times