What does Pope Francis know of the Irish Church now?

Jan 24, 2017 | 5 comments

(N.B. in light of new information received on Friday 27th Jan. 2017, this piece has been edited to correct our previous understanding of Jan. 24th, 2017 that, in line with precedent, Pope Francis would issue a textual response to the Ad Limina visit of Ireland’s bishops to Rome, 15th-25th January, 2017.)

It now appears that, forsaking long-established practice, Pope Francis will provide no textual response to the Ad Limina visit of Ireland’s Catholic bishops to Rome, 15-25th January 2017.

In the past such papal addresses have given the journalists and people of the countries concerned some idea of what a reigning pope sees as the priorities for the bishops concerned.  For example, the Ad Limina address of Pope Benedict XVI to the Irish bishops in October 2006 emphasised the need to care for victims of clerical sexual abuse, while that of Pope John Paul II in 2001 called for ‘new structures and programmes, that help to build a greater sense of belonging to the ecclesial community’.

This leaves those at home guessing, from scant clues, at the picture of Ireland that has formed in the mind of Pope Francis as a result of the reports our bishops delivered to Rome before this visit.  We are even more in the dark than usual, and will have some obvious questions as to what exactly the pope was told about the real state of affairs in Ireland – questions that were not answered by the press conference given by four of Ireland’s bishops on Jan. 20th.

For example, have our bishops updated the message that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin gave to Pope Benedict XVI in 2006:  “I can go to parishes on a Sunday where I find no person in the congregations between the ages of 16 and 36. None at all.”  Have they explained their own failure to research the causes of this youth exodus among young people themselves, in serious studies aimed at identifying causes and possible solutions? Were they able to point to research explaining why clerical vocations are now so rare? Have they fully explained the looming ending of the regular weekday Mass, due to a chronic shortage of priests – and the tiredness and low morale of an ageing clergy?  Have they explained their own general avoidance of regular dialogue with lay people on all of these matters, in contexts which would allow the hardest questions to be put and addressed?

It does not inspire confidence that the diocesan reports already submitted to Rome in preparation for this visit are so far, as usual, an entirely closed book to the people of those dioceses. This maintenance of the culture of secrecy that has so undermined trust between the clerical institution and the Catholic people of Ireland does not inspire confidence.

Archbishop Eamon Martin’s speaking notes for his address to the pope at the beginning of this latest Ad Limina visit to Rome have also given us cause for concern, especially this passage:

We also thank God for the many shoots of new growth and renewal that are emerging in parishes and dioceses all over the country, especially in catechesis, lay involvement and pastoral outreach to the marginalised.

We are concerned that if this theme of ‘new shoots’ has been exaggerated in Rome this month, our bishops may have ‘talked down’ all evidence of church decline in Ireland, and ‘talked up’ whatever signs of renewal they have themselves encouraged in their own dioceses – to give the pope an impression that the Irish church has turned a corner and is now already on an upswing. That is not the impression that most of us have.

But what do our readers think?  What do you see in your own church context?  Are you observing more ‘green shoots’ than reasons for concern?  Please let us know – to help us comment accurately on the situation as it now is.

Sean O’Conaill


  1. Frank Gregg

    I am not aware of any new shoots in my parish, the largest in Kildare and Leighlin – Newbridge .
    There is new progress insomuch as a youth group is now meeting regularly which is there for some years. I am unaware as to their formation. I suspect it is if the traditional devotional variety .
    Our parish is very large and there are about 600 active members including me- readers, singers, choirs, finance committees , parish council , etc but all of a traditional subservient variety which regard the PP as the boss and final arbiter in parish affairs. Needless to say I have challenged him on some issues. The pp is a good man and is very committed but sees the clerical church from his side of the fence- a company man you might say.
    There is no adult faith or theological formation in our parish to account for the impending future needs of the parish. There are about 10 on the parish team of priests and sisters and 2 lay people.
    We are in no way prepared for the future.

    • John Kelly

      Frank, 600 active parish members! That seems a powerful number of people who are giving time to the parish and is similar in other parishes. The church cleaners in Enniskerry Parish are known locally as “angels”- they are!. Can you imagine if they were given the kind of leadership and communication that made them feel really responsible for the success of the gospel message in today’s community.
      The potential for the”pyramid church” that Francis speaks of is obvious.

  2. Pascal O'Dea

    Frank, in the Bagenalstown-Carlow end of the diocese we have met Bishop Dennis Nulty in Jan 2015 and in Oct/Nov sent him a request for a second meeting with suggestions for some “fixes for our problems”. We suggested he take some soundings around the diocese in anticipation of that meeting.We were clear in outlining the areas of concern,the abuse scandal,youth/adult disengagement from the church,the lack of meaningful role for women in the church,lack of meaningful dialogue with lay people ,non functioning parish councils,lack of adult faith development,solutions for the current needs of parishes with good practices shared in light of the local parish structure failing in many cases, need for a diocesan dialogue/synod (that could have informed the Ad Limina submissions) .The people including clergy are the Church, we pray and support each other, its such a pity the bishops appear so frozen in time, blinded in the headlights of their dilemma,by fear of change.If they encouraged real dialogue in the example of Pope Francis they might be emboldened to make the necessary change,in supporting ordinary church members and clergy in our faith journey .

  3. Noel McCann

    In view of the fact that Pope Francis did not issue any statement at the conclusion of the Ad Limina visit and our bishops have not, so far, made any public comment since returning from Rome, is it not time to ask the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference the following simple question – ‘Is it proposed to communicate any of the details of the visit to the lay faithful’?

    If the answer is in the negative then we have a clear insight into the attitude of our bishops to concepts such as’co-responsibility’ and ‘openness’ which Pope Francis is trying to promote in our church.

    I wonder which approach Pope Francis would expect from our bishops!!

    • Teresa Mee

      Yes, Noel – to asking if the bishops propose to communicate with the Church in Ireland at least some of the major issues discussed.

      Did they discuss the mass exodus from the Catholic Church?

      Could we add some of our research results on the reasons for the emigration and whereto?

      I have some reasons to hand, and no doubt, others do too.


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