Irish Church now ‘on Exodus’: Bishop Donal McKeown

Jun 26, 2016 | 11 comments

Bishop Donal McKeown

Bishop Donal McKeown, Bishop of Derry and chair of the Commission for Pastoral Renewal and Adult Faith Development of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference

The Irish Church of the recent past was never the promised land – according to Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry.  The Irish Church is now ‘on Exodus’ – a pilgrim and missionary people journeying towards co-responsibility and the discovery of our own distinct identity within a united global church.  

Bishop McKeown delivered the following address in Saint Mary’s Oratory, Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, on June 23rd, 2016.

It is good to be able to welcome you here on this day when we celebrate the eve of the birthday of Saint John the Baptist – who suffered for speaking the uncomfortable truth to powerful people – and are aware of the UK poll on membership of the European Union. As people of faith from across our continent, you represent diverse languages and cultures which do not have one currency but do share one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and which espouse a European homeland that breathes with two lungs. We welcome you as representing the Church incarnate in your countries.

We welcome you to Ireland. The Church in this country is changing from a body that felt safe and secure in our own perceived strength. We are discovering the breath of the Spirit that invites us to be pilgrims and missionaries, not settlers and defenders of our castle, where we risked believing God has taken up permanent abode. We are a people on Exodus. We will be provided with watering holes on the way – and we are told not to hanker after the past. That past may have had its strengths but it was never the Promised Land. Being a pilgrim people is supposed to be the norm for us, not a punishment or an aberration. As Timothy Radcliffe memorably said, “The only thing I know about the future of the Church is that it has a future!”

You may think of Ireland as being on the edge of Europe, with the next parish being in Boston or New York. But Ireland and its Church have always been European. The Gospel came to us from the mainland of Europe. We sent many missionaries there such as Kilian, Columbanus, Fergal and Coloman. They came to a Europe where none of our present countries existed. The English invasion of Ireland in the 16th century was motivated by a fear of Spain. In the 18th century, Irish priests were formed in many colleges in France, Belgium, Spain and Italy. After a century of persecution, the 19th century Church took the French and Italian Church as its model for renewal. The 1916 uprising had strong encouragement from Germany. Irish people are to be found in all the great European pilgrimage centres – Lourdes, Fatima, Rome, Medjugorje. The Irish Catholic Church has always been clear on its European identity and we welcome you as those whom we have known as brothers and sisters down through the centuries.

There are many opportunities and challenges for this continent and world in which we seek to witness. On the positive side, we have great traditions of faith, deeply rooted in our cultures, traditions and artistic heritage. In Ireland, we are discovering a renewed thirst to drink at the wellsprings that nourished our ancestors through all sorts of periods. A century ago, people stood on the cusp of a radical redrawing of the continent which saw the end of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires and the creation of many small states. One hundred years later, the fear of the invasion and attack is inducing many to build new walls and not bridges. We may be facing a period of renewed nationalism, as well as strident regionalism within some current states.

Our task is not just to keep alive the flame of faith in our secular societies but to engage with those societies, offering hope and being a witness to a Church that, ‘by its relationship with Christ is a credible sign or sacrament of intimate union with God and of the unity of all mankind’ (Lumen Gentium 1). Our individual churches are not just concerned with saving souls but also with saving Europe from its worst self-destructive inclinations.

And you gather with us, motivated by a shared awareness of many of the new trends in Catholic theology. You gather in ‘a spirituality of communion’ (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 43), called to be ‘builders of tomorrow’s European society, establishing it on a firm spiritual foundation’ (Ecclesia in Europa, 41). And you gather in a Church that is rediscovering an ecclesiology of collegiality and co-responsibility. Pope Francis is clear that the Church is not an absolute monarchical pyramid under the headship of the Pope, but rather a community of local churches each of which is the Body of Christ in their distinct environments – and together constitute the Universal Church. The challenge is always to balance somehow the need to maintain the unity of the whole church with equal regard for the distinctiveness of the local churches.

It is good for us that you are here. I hope that it will be good for you to be with us. We are all enriched when we share our faith journeys – and together we can give thanks for all that the Lord has done – and continues to do – for us.


* Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry and chair of the Commission for Pastoral Renewal and Adult Faith Development of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.


  1. soconaill

    I would greatly like to hear Bishop McKeown developing these themes of ‘exodus’ and ‘mission’ in extended dialogue with the people of his own diocese, Derry.

    Straddling the border as we do – as well as the ‘shadow line’ between that apparently strong church of the past, and the future church we cannot yet see – we sorely need to be in vigorous dialogue if we are to become fit for mission. There can be no discovery of ‘the breath of the spirit’ until the diocese is woken up and convened for renewal and mission – rather than left in the torpor of complacency and silence that continues to foster its decline.

  2. Mary Vallely

    ” And you gather in a Church that is rediscovering an ecclesiology of collegiality and co-responsibility.”(D.McK)
    Is that not an invitation to dialogue if he really means what he says here?? He does seem approachable and passionate which is a starting point. Maybe drop him a line to suggest the necessity of trying to do something to tackle the ‘ torpor of complacency.’ After AB Diarmuid Martin’s bewailing the lack of intellectual lay Catholic discussion it would seem that the time is ripe to prove him wrong!

  3. soconaill

    I can vouch for Bishop McKeown’s approachability, Mary. I agree entirely that we should see this address as an invitation to proactivity in the cause of mobilising lay people for co-responsibility – especially as regards family and faith development, my own key interest. There is no future in negativity – in expecting nothing to follow from these words of the bishop: that would be essentially a rejection of co-responsibility, a self-fulfilling prophecy of inertia.

    • Martin Harran

      Our bishops are not stupid men, far from it. They see the problems of the Church just as we do, they see the need for change just as we do. The fact that they do not respond in the way we do is a reflection of the different position that they are in compared to the position we are in.

      The bishops have to manage the Church towards a new future, a future whose shape none of us really know for sure. They have to bring their congregations with them – congregations who are probably roughly divided between those of a liberal frame of mind and those of a more traditional frame of mind. They equally have to work with Rome and its entrenched bureaucracy. It is easy to castigate the bishops for being afraid to rock the boat but rocking the boat is not always the safest way out of trouble.

      I think the challenge for us as laity is to seek ways we can work along with the bishops inside the constraints that currently exist however tortuous and unpalatable that may feel at times. Challenging them head on is unlikely to produce any real results

      • soconaill

        Well said, Martin. I must email Bishop McKeown to congratulate him on this address, and encourage him to expand upon it. Here in this parish we anticipate clerical changes – so perhaps he will visit if a new PP is to be installed.

  4. Martin Murray

    Maybe a side issue but this line struck me as poignant:-
    “You may think of Ireland as being on the edge of Europe, with the next parish being in Boston or New York. But Ireland and its Church have always been European.” Probably explains my sadness as a Northerner at the Brexit result. Human corporate greed and ecologically driven immigration are not going to stop just because UK withdraws from the EU. How our Christian faith should inform and shape our response to these issues is a huge task for the Church in the years ahead.

  5. soconaill

    Bang on, Martin. I have always resisted the excesses of political nationalism, especially the narcissistic aspect – and that surely lies behind the Europhobia that has driven the worst aspects of the Brexit campaign. Catholicism at its best – e.g. as exemplified by Columbanus – has always been a force for the unification of the European and global family and must not yield, ever, to isolationism and xenophobia. ‘Sovereignty’ is a delusion, a mirage – and will not be achieved by Brexit. Many who supported that cause will very soon be completely disillusioned. It is the smaller nations that have most to gain from European integration, and most to lose from its opposite.

  6. Noel McCann

    Bishop McKeown’s words are certainly very encouraging, especially for those who have been seeking an acknowledgement of the urgent need to abandon the perceived safety of ‘our castle’. For some this will constitute a ‘big step’ into the unknown, filled with risk and uncertainty. But in reality there is no other option at this point in the life of the church in Ireland. The choice is between taking the ‘bold step’ into the unknown or settling for short-term security which will inevitably lead [in time] to the ‘castle’ falling into terminal decay.
    Hopefully Bishop McKeown’s views are shared by some other bishops. If this is the case and we are really at a critical turning point then for the ACI [and for people who share our vision for a renewed and reformed church] a key question is how can we engage with, influence and support this long awaited initiative.

  7. soconaill

    Yes, Noel – how to ‘engage with, influence and support’ this new direction of Exodus for the Irish church.

    For example, how does my own public questioning of our school-centred faith formation system ‘go down’ with bishops – as ‘carping criticism’ or ‘sensible reflection’?

    I recall that on the original Exodus there was considerable friction and dissension among ‘God’s people’. We must pray to the Holy Spirit to give us all the wisdom to ‘navigate’ this new territory, and the graces needed to build a new, mutually trustful, relationship.

  8. Pascal O'Dea

    Martin (3rd July),you make the point that the Bishops are not stupid and I would agree, that they need our support and I agree also.But I would not be afraid of constructive criticism on their part.When we suspend our ability to assess and critique the perilous state of the Church in deference to the bishops we are leaving the responsibility to others. Unfortunately while rocking the boat may be risky we are definitely not becalmed as the Church faces an ongoing reality check as we meet the 21st century in a vessel only suitable for a bygone era. While accepting the “bona fides” of our bishops we are facing a hugely changed environment requiring different talents and it is important to reflect on Pope Francis’s call for subsidiarity and the sooner more of the Hierarchy speak and act on Pope Francis’s theme the better.

  9. soconaill

    Quite right, Pascal. It surprises me that even yet there are clergy tuned out of the Pope’s attack on clericalism – and balanced criticism of the latter is surely part of the obligation of ‘co-responsibility’. We need to see co-responsibility implemented, especially in the critical field of faith development.


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