Pope Francis has told Irish bishops their role should be one of a “goalkeeper”, ready to take shots from any direction.
The pope made this observation during a two-hour audience with the bishops, who have been in Rome all week on an "Ad Limina" (to the threshold) visit to the Pope and the Holy See.
Speaking at a news conference after their audience, Archbishop Eamon Martin, and president of the Irish Bishops conference, said he and his fellow Bishops had been very encouraged by the “open attitude” and the “listening mode” of both the pontiff and the Holy See curia.
Also attending the news conference were the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, the Bishop of Kildare Denis Nulty and the Bishop of Limerick, Brendan Leahy.
Both Archbishops stressed the informal, relaxed nature of their audience.
Rather than greet the bishops with a prepared text, the pope sat down beside them in a large group.
Archbishop Eamon Martin said the conversation, with the aid of an English-speaking interpreter, was about the Church in Ireland and about “the hopes, the fears and the struggles of our people”.
Archbishop Martin, one of the small number of Irish bishops present at the last Irish "Ad Limina" visit in 2006, called the meeting "quite extraordinary".
“He didn’t present us with an agenda of the things he wanted to talk about. The dominant thing was he was asking us and challenging us about what it means to be a Bishop in Ireland or anywhere today1,” the Archbishop said.
Instead the pope’s questions were practical, not political. He asked how do we begin a dialogue with young people?
According to Archbishop Martin, the pope told the bishops not to be ideological. “We should meet with people the way they are.”
“He described the bishop as being like a goalkeeper: the shots keep coming from everywhere. You stand there and be ready there,” Archbishop Martin said.
The Irish Times asked if the Irish Church had come to Rome wary of being criticised by a Holy See disappointed with falling mass attendance in a country which last year voted in favour of same sex marriage, in direct defiance of Catholic Church teaching?
The Archbishop of Dublin said the atmosphere in the Vatican had been “very, very different” and the Irish bishops “certainly did not have the impression that they were under investigation or accusation”.
Archbishop Martin also said meetings with different departments in the Holy See had been “extremely fruitful, cordial and challenging”.
Asked had the Bishops discussed with the pope issues including clerical sex abuse, the role of women and his forthcoming visit to Ireland next year, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin replied “nothing was off the agenda”.
Bishop Denis Nulty of Kildare said the word conversation best summed up not just the audience with the pope but also the entire week.
Bishop Leahy of Limerick said he thought the pope wanted to give the bishops a conviction “that, yes, as a Church community, we want to create a family and I came away with that very strong message”.