Bishop Brendan Leahy speaking with Aine Fitzgerald Pictures: Michael Cowhey
AT NOON on a Tuesday, behind the red brick English garden walls of the Social Service Centre on Henry Street in the city, Bishop Brendan Leahy climbs the narrow staircase to the second floor.
“How are ye all? I was up saying Mass. I will be with you in a minute,” says the 56-year-old, now standing outside the door of the meeting room of Limerick Diocesan Office. He then disappears into another room.
Despite the blue skies outside, a pall of sadness hovers over every crisp, golden leaf between St John’s Cathedral and here. Indeed, the entire city and county is at a low ebb. It’s been 48 hours since news filtered through from Paris of the death of one of the city’s finest sons, Anthony Foley.
“He was a hero in so many ways. We can’t but think of his family,” says Bishop Leahy having taken his seat in the meeting room under a collage of religious artwork.
“It’s very, very sad to leave a young family behind him. He was completely full of compassion, commitment, dedication, zeal and single- mindedness which, I suppose, is an example for us all - we do need to have that in life. He was also a student of St Munchin’s College which is our diocesan college.”
Bishop Leahy was appointed Bishop of Limerick in 2013. He feels very much at home here. Both his parents, Maurice and Treasa, hailed from Ballyferriter in County Kerry and were teachers. Sadly, they have both passed on.
“Even though I played a little bit of hurling when I was young I have had to learn a lot more about hurling and certainly a lot more about rugby since I came here,” he smiles before we get down to the serious business of the interview.
Over the course of the next hour Bishop Leahy answers a range of questions pertaining to the Church in Limerick.
Settling in Limerick
AF: You were ordained Bishop of Limerick in 2013, how have you settled in?
I feel very much at home here and I feel grateful because I think that it is a moment of new energy with both the county and the city coming together. I feel it is a good moment to be here.
There is a lot of coming together, joining up of the dots, creative thinking and imagination.
OK, we didn’t succeed in the bid for the City of Culture, but, still, even the getting ready for it, I thought brought a lot of energy. One of the things I feel we could bid for is The City of Young People - Youth City.
Every few years, a city is dedicated as a City of Youth and I think we should bid for that. We have the third level colleges and we have a lot going for us as a city. We have a huge arts world here - theatre, orchestra and then the sports world which we are seeing a lot of these days - so I think we have a lot going for us.
I have to pay tribute to Limerick City and County Council – they are doing their part. Gradually, we are tackling issues.
I like the city a lot. I think the city of Limerick has great potential. Outside of Dublin, I think it is the most elegant city. It has an elegance - when you think of the Georgian Square, St John’s Square, when you think of the castle and the cathedral. You have the river, the walkway and some of the buildings around Pery Square and the People’s Park, there is a great elegance. I hope that whatever plans we have going forward, we keep the theme of elegance – not opulence. You could have an opulence that is glitzy but that isn’t Limerick. You want an elegance that speaks of dignity, that speaks of welcome and harmony and that speaks of character.
And then we have the big towns – Kilmallock, Newcastle West and Adare – they are all gems in their own way – each of them has huge history. Obviously, Kilmallock has an enormous history – including our martyrs.
I haven’t really announced it publicly yet but The Vatican have given us permission to have the devotion to the Limerick martyrs publicly celebrated here in the Diocese of Limerick so I’m really happy about that.
In relation to priests and the shortage of them, how is the Limerick Diocese coping at the moment?
I think we are coping well in the sense that we are looking at the issue. We are not trying to pretend it isn’t there. We are acknowledging the issue and being proactive. One of the things we are doing here is we have moved more clearly towards a team ministry model, that is three or four priests looking after several parishes together. There will be teething problems because it’s new and we have to think it through but we have to move in that direction.
In moving in that direction we are going to see teams of priests but not just teams of priests, I think we will see lay people working within the teams so that is going to be a development.
Here, for instance, we have the first new lay general manager, lay diocesan secretary. Catherine Kelly replaced Fr Paul Finnerty – it was always a priest before that.
At parish level, we are trying to focus more on parish councils – get parish councils up and running so that there is a central council and a financial council which strive to drive the parish as well.
Where do you see the Diocese in 10 years’ time?
I think the Synod has given us directions. It has clearly said we need to move in new directions – more teams of priests working together so not necessarily every parish having a resident priest but certainly having the services of priests because there will be teams. The parish councils will be more vibrant.
In 10 and 20 years’ time do you think there will be priests there to say Mass every Sunday?
In 10 years’ time certainly we will still have that but what we may have is that not every church will have Mass every Sunday, it might be that some churches will have Mass every second Sunday or one Sunday a month.
Does that sadden you?
No, I’m not frightened by the difficulties. I feel we need to grapple with the logistics of what needs to be sorted out but I feel God is doing something – I really do believe that. Hope is something we really need to talk about more to ourselves as priests but also to young people.
Our world is guided by God, I believe that, so even what’s going on in the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, by God, so therefore we have to follow what he wants, not what we want.
The parish priest in the future might find himself parish priest of two or three parishes – that’s going to be a challenge.
How can he be the parish priest of two or three parishes? He can’t keep going with all the work and administration, so we are going to have to reflect on it.
In relation to women priests, is it something that you would favour, and can you see the Church moving towards it in the near future?
At the moment a lot of decision making resolves around priests but that is not necessarily how it has to be. So I think some of the issues about why people might want women priests might have to do with decision making and power but they are not necessarily essential to priesthood.
What Pope John Paul II said is, from the point of view of what has been handed down to us by Jesus, in his plan of things, God has almost a marriage relationship with humanity which is symbolised by Christ, the Church and symbolised in the Eucharist of the Mass, which the priest celebrates representing Christ, and the whole people together celebrating the Church.
The Church has the model, the woman, Mary, who gives birth to Jesus in the world, in social projects, in economics etc. and I think we will have to discover the role of the charism, the Holy Spirit gift, what Pope Francis calls the feminine genius, also in terms of the Church’s outreach beyond the sacristy. So I visualise that they are developments we are going to see.
So, in your eyes, do you feel the priest should be a male role?
Yes, Pope John Paul has said that is how he sees… that is what has been given to us in the tradition. Obviously Jesus and Mary were the major figures in bringing God into the world in the form of what we now have as the life of God, we have to remember that just to look at the male priest only, would be a limited notion of the Church. The Church is much bigger than that and I think that is what today we are being pushed to do – that the Church is much bigger than the priest saying Mass.
There is a much bigger role out there and that is a role that has been underdeveloped – the Church bringing God as it were into economics, into science, into arts, into education, into hospitals.
Would you have an issue with women being priests? Would you have a personal issue with it?
A personal issue - not at all but the issue is more to do with faith. In other words, the faith that we have comes from Jesus Christ. He has set up the Church so we have to follow up what Jesus set up, not our own idea of the Church. But we have to be attentive to what the Holy Spirit today is saying to us to rediscover and I think what he is saying is we need to discover a new way – the role and place of women in the Church, the Church in its outreach to the world.
And how do you think that would work – the role of women, do you think there is another role, not a priest per se, a role they could fill without necessarily saying Mass?
Correct. I think so. We do have a certain experience of that too – a lot of people will tell you if you ever go to missionary countries, women will be the leaders of communities. In Africa, for instance, where the priest might only be able to visit every month.
For people who don't know, where does a priest's income come from?
At the moment their income comes from the dues – we have Christmas dues, Easter dues and also Harvest dues. The envelopes go around parishes and people contribute, so out of that money basically comes the money that pays the priests.
Basically, what we have worked out is what is the minimum a priest should have - so, for a parish priest it’s €27,000 approximately, if he is a curate, it's €24,000 approximately.
So if a parish gives that much money then that covers it. If they have extra money then a percentage of that money can be kept in the parish but another percentage is sent into us here centrally and we distribute it to those priests whose parish didn’t give as much – for example a disadvantaged parish. But we are seeing that those dues are declining, that people don’t think that they are important.
People think that every collection on Sunday goes to them – those collections go to the upkeep of the church and the services such as electricity.
Do you get much feedback in relation to loneliness among priests? Are they open about it?
Yes, we do sometimes talk about that, absolutely. I think priests find great support from parishioners very often but also from priests themselves. I have to say one of the features I like here in Limerick is I think there is good camaraderie among priests. They keep in contact with one another.
Priests getting married
What do you feel about priests getting married?
Technically speaking the Church’s position on priests getting married is that it isn’t a question of the faith as such, it happens to be more a question of discipline. Having said that, there is recognition that there is a value in it.
Celibacy has to be lived well. Celibacy is different to being bachelors – there is a difference and I think that is something that has to be all the time worked on – so that you are not just living on your own as a bachelor, you are in a community of priests and you are within a community of a parish and you must live that relationship.
Sometimes I like to put it this way, celibacy shouldn’t be repressing your heart but expanding your heart. OK, a priest renounces a particular family but he is then called on to generate a bigger family.
Now if a fella said to me, ‘Oh, I will go along with it because it is a package deal, I would say, ‘Forget it. That’s wrong, completely.’ So we always have to check the motivation behind somebody who comes forward to become a priest, that he genuinely feels he has a call to live celibacy.
What do you think is the value of celibacy?
I think the value is, like Jesus, like Mary, it is a dedication to creating the family of God with your whole life. You become a statement, like an icon of trying to say, ‘Like Jesus, I want to give my life to promote the kingdom of God'. The kingdom of God means human flourishing. I want to help people flourish completely and I want to dedicate myself totally to that.
It is a big commitment obviously and it must be a struggle for people?
It is a struggle but I often feel that we must be careful too as priests that we don’t over exaggerate the struggle. Don’t tell me married people don’t have struggles – they have major struggles to keep faithful to their relationship. A man or a woman may see another man or woman and say, ‘Oh I could have tried that,’ but no, they have a family now so they must be faithful to their person.
Likewise, a priest, or a religious sister or a consecrated person chooses the way of celibacy. In a certain sense they are entering into, as the Church says, a spousal relationship or a married relationship, and they too have to be faithful to their married relationship. Yes, of course there are struggles and temptations like there are in any walk of life.
In relation to committing adultery, there seems to be more of a laissez-faire attitude to people committing adultery in society at the moment, a society where you have celebrities, like the Kardashians, painting a picture to young people of the way life should be lived. That must be hard to watch? Does it worry you?
I make a distinction. As you say, there is the glamour-style life which can be an illusion for young people and that can lead them in the wrong direction. Obviously, there are certain situations for ordinary people, for want of a better word, for whom life has gone in a certain direction – a marriage has broken down or there is a difficulty, that is a separate thing and I think I would have to come at that from a different point of view.
But from the point of view of the more glamorous type of illusionary, yes I do feel sorry sometimes for young people. It’s difficult for them. I think what we do need is people who are prepared to say, ‘Look, I believe in this and I’m going to try to live it’.
Pope Francis has been very strong on this – he has said, ‘Don’t let your freedom be robbed’. Very often, he said, there are powers that be that want to somehow present to you all types of things and want to keep you living a certain type of lifestyle because they have a control over you. There is a social pressure whereas it’s your call to be free - your call to make a mark on this world.
Hope is very important to tell young people about. Because I think what happens is, young people in their 20s – especially their early 20s, because of the social pressure and the various addictions, they end up in situations and feel that they have slipped or fallen and are in a quagmire and can’t get out of it and so they kind of lower the bar for themselves. But I feel that is a pity because hope would say to them, ‘No, you are not trapped- the whole point of the Christian faith is you are never trapped.
Even when you fall, you can put your hand up and say, ‘Pull me up] and start afresh. And that starting afresh, for me, is key to life. In my own personal life, ‘start afresh and begin again’ is a motto I must say to myself about 20 times a day. It’s really important. We all mess up!
We have a moral compass inside us. It’s in us, it’s there. We know it but what happens is we get trapped because everyone around us seems to be saying something else. But people must realise there is hope – you can always live a better life. To be fair, I think young people do listen to their parents, and grandparents. Grandparents in today’s world have a very big role to play.
The Scandals in the Church
Do you think the Church is healing itself?
We are trying our best and there is no doubt that compared to 20 years ago today we have so much in place. We have new standards which I have just adopted. I have a full-time child safe guarding officer here. Every parish now has child safe guarding volunteer reps.
I have a newsletter which I send out regularly around child safeguarding. Of course I meet with the victims. It’s an area which is now very much to the fore for us in the Church. Hopefully we are doing our part but what we need to be very careful about is never becoming complacent.
The 8th Amendment
The 8th Amendment is obviously very topical at the moment. Where do you stand on it?
Obviously the important thing is to promote life and promote the culture of life and make sure that we live in a society that is doing our part at all levels to promote life, and life at all levels. That’s the bottom line for me –that’s what we need to be careful to do. And in all our deliberations have that as our goal – promoting life, because at the end of the day the unborn life is also unborn life, the life of the mother is a life so we have to promote life.
And do you think that when the mother’s life is in danger, that abortion should be an option?
There are clear principles about that which have guided doctors for centuries – what’s sometimes called the double effect principle, that is there are certain situations when a mother’s health requires a certain intervention and that intervention is a medically approved intervention, well that intervention takes places if that’s the primary focus. Unintentionally the life of the unborn in that medical procedure is ended, but that’s a different thing from saying I’m directly going to take the life of the unborn.
Some people might say that is very subtle but it is a distinction, of intention – what exactly am I intending to do?
Does it sadden you that girls and women travel to England to terminate their pregnancy?
Sure, I would love to feel that we had a culture that somehow would reach them in their moment of need and help them. We try to get the message out there.
Finally, the Church is getting more modern in terms of relaying its message. Are you on Twitter or Facebook?
We have a diocesan Facebook page which I go on everyday myself. It’s updated three or four times a day. I’m not on Twitter – but we are working on starting a Twitter account here.
A day in the life of Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy:
Generally, I get up at 6.30am and say my few prayers, briefly. I then have my breakfast and while I’m having my breakfast I review the newspapers – online I have to confess! At that stage then I work for maybe an hour, on the computer doing things that have to be done or sometimes I have to prepare a talk or respond to emails. I do that early in the morning while I’m still fresh.
Then at that stage while there’s a bit of light I will go out and do a walk – now this is an ideal day, I don’t do it every day. I have two or three routes. I can go to UL or go beyond Annacotty or I can go to Newtown and beyond that. I live in Castletroy.
Then I come back and say prayers more seriously – I do my morning prayer and meditation.
I had Mass this morning in the Cathedral at 10.30am. I try every Tuesday, when I can, to go and say Mass in the Cathedral and then I come into the office here and I resume either normal work which is sometimes meeting people or I have to respond to letters.
I am chair of the Board of Mary Immaculate College so sometimes I will be there, and I’m chair also of the board in St John’s Hospital so some days I will be there.
Other than that it is the pastoral day-to-day running of all the aspects of the life of the diocese which goes from the parishes and parish life and liturgy to schools and education at first, second and third level, to hospital care and health care but also then there is a side to me that says we must also go out. I’m interested in issues like homelessness.
On the occasional time I visit the prison and say Mass in the prison. I go to homes and nursing homes.
I have to confess and my father (Maurice) was probably the same – I tend to not watch much telly, very little to be honest. I’m just not a telly person. I don’t know if there is virtue in it, I hope there is but my father was the same. I fear it a bit because when you get very old – your 80s or 90s you are just plonked in front of the telly all day long – I would hope not!
The odd time I watch a video or film and I try to hit the news now and again of course.
I read different books. I like writing, almost as a little hobby, I like writing books. I have a book coming out on mercy for this year – The Year of Mercy for the Catholic Church.
I might phone friends and the odd weekend I go away to be with people.
The other side of my work that maybe isn’t so obvious is more at the national level. Within the Bishops’ Conference, catechetics, that is religious education, is one of my roles.
Ideally, I try to get to a parish now and again and spend a day in a parish, so I get there early in the morning. I was better doing that last year or the year before than I have been this year – I have to confess.