“We are really worried,” said Archbishop Martin. Almost 20 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which sanctioned the end of the armed struggle, the dark clouds of conflict and division once again hover over the Irish Island. Archbishop Eamon Martin, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland since 2014, was born and grew up in the difficult city of Derry, where in 1972 the infamous Bloody Sunday took place. He does not hide the fact that the Island’s social atmosphere today is anything but serene.
While giving this interview to ZENIT, the polls opened in Northern Ireland to elect new members of the Belfast Parliament. Among the first issues on the table after the elections will be Brexit. Up to today there are no blockades between the two Irelands; the passage from Dublin to Belfast is free of interruptions. However, when London leaves the European Union, the border issue will be a knot that the British Government will have to untangle.
The border in the Island does not exist for the Catholic Church. There is one Episcopal Conference and Pope Francis received its members in the Vatican last January 20 during their ad Limina visit. Archbishop Martin said to ZENIT that they spoke with the Pontiff about the delicate situation of sexual abuses and the pastoral challenges in an ever more secularized society troubled by the political crisis.
ZENIT: Archbishop Martin, how was the meeting with the Pope?
The Ad Limina meeting in January of the bishops of Ireland with Pope Francis was quite extraordinary. For many of the bishops, myself included, this was our first Ad Limina visit. Pope Francis was very welcoming and eager to hear about our pastoral experiences as bishops in Ireland.
ZENIT: What are the main pastoral commitments in Ireland? Were there subjects in particular upon which you reflected further?
So much has changed for us in the ten years since the last Ad limina visit of the Irish bishops with Pope Benedict XVI so there was a lot to discuss. We discussed with Pope Francis the ongoing determined efforts being made to safeguard children and vulnerable people from abuse. During our visit Sir Anthony Hart’s report into Historical Institutional Abuse in Northern Ireland was published in Belfast and it served as a reminder that much work remains to be undertaken in this regard.
We also spoke to Pope Francis about vocations in Ireland and the well-being and ministry of our priests and religious. We are aware of declining numbers of priests and the toll their increased workload can take. We are thankful for their resilience, dedication and generosity, and for the ongoing kindness and support of the faithful. It was clear to us that the Church in Ireland is in a period of transition and that it is time for us to move out of a maintenance mode and into a ‘missionary key’. This will mean a ‘letting go’ in some senses by priests and bishops of a clerical mentality and an openness to calling forth and embracing the gifts and charisms of the lay faithful, including the particular gifts of women. We 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 marginalized.
Of course, we also discussed with the Holy Father the upcoming World Meeting of Families which will take place in Dublin in August 2018, and repeated our invitation to Pope Francis to join us for the occasion. The pastoral care of families remains a priority for us. For Ireland, the World Meeting of Families is much more than a ‘once-off’ event. We look to it, rather, as a graced opportunity, a process by which we can celebrate and explore further the riches of the Church’s ‘Gospel of the Family’.
ZENIT: Before the elections in Northern Ireland, you bishops prepared a document for the voters. Why?
As bishops, we have an obligation to serve the faithful and to preach the Gospel. This is a critical time for our society. Recent months have brought into the open the reality that the principles of the Good Friday Agreement, which was agreed in 1998, are perhaps not as deeply embedded as we might have hoped. There has been a return to the language of division and difference and it is important that everyone in the community gets behind our newly elected representatives and urges them not to unravel the tremendous progress that has been made over the past twenty years.
We all have responsibilities in this regard including the Churches, the business community as well as the British and Irish governments as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement and peace process. We must all avoid the use of harsh or angry language or the temptation to play the ‘blame game’ rather than accepting our collective responsibility for the past, present and future. Our politicians have a precious vocation to work for the common good and exercise their leadership through the careful practice of compromise and agreement.
ZENIT: In the last 20 years, the situation in Northern Ireland has changed greatly. What did the Good Friday Agreement represent for you, Primate of Ireland born in Derry?
Much has changed in this part of Ireland in the last twenty years, most notably with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. I grew up during troubled times and in a troubled and divided city. It was a difficult time for Ireland and for Derry. However we have shown that it is possible to find common ground and to build a peaceful and shared future in many ways. Now other troubled parts of the world look to us in the North of Ireland as a beacon of hope that peace can be achieved.
One cannot underestimate the importance of the Good Friday Agreement. People around the world look to Northern Ireland as an example of people sorting out their differences. There is a whole new generation that has now grown up without cultural experience of violence. I would be terribly disappointed if a new generation of young people would be manipulated into violence. As a society we have hardly yet begun to tackle the terrible legacy of trauma that the years of violence left behind.
ZENIT: Might the Brexit have an impact on Ireland?
Ireland, North and South is in a state of uncertainty because of Brexit. We do not know the impact Brexit might have socially, culturally, politically and indeed economically. In many ways being part of Europe together helped us to see our problems in a less insular way. We looked to Europe and saw where former enemies are now cooperating, working side by side, and that was an inspiration for us to see beyond borders and barriers.
Despite assurances of British Prime Minister Teresa May and from the Taoiseach Enda Kenny, many people have begun talking, once again, about borders between the North and South of Ireland and about restrictions on the movement of goods. There is even a fear of restrictions on the movement of people. This kind of nervousness, combined with uncertainty and lack of confidence in the institution of government in Northern Ireland, can make for a dangerous cocktail. Sadly, of course – as in all conflict situations – it will be the poor, the marginalised, the socially and economically deprived, who will suffer most and may even end up getting manipulated and drawn into violence and hopelessness. We must avoid that at all costs.
ZENIT: Therefore, the return of the border issue and violence in Ireland are sources of concrete preoccupation?
We are genuinely concerned at the prospect of a return to a hard border between North and South. The Catholic Church, and indeed Methodists, Presbyterians and Anglicans, are organised on an all-island basis. The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, for example, is an all-Ireland decision making forum which serves the faithful throughout the island of Ireland, north and south. There is no distinction between northern dioceses and southern dioceses. Armagh, which is my archdiocese, consists of about 60% of people situated in Northern Ireland, and the remaining 40% live in the Republic.
Of course the more difficult and dangerous borders can exist in our minds, where we develop attitudes of exclusion towards migrants, refugees, people of other political persuasions. Northern Ireland is a small place. It exists in relationship – with the Republic to the South, with Britain to the East, and further beyond with mainland Europe. However the past has shown, that although small, violence in Northern Ireland can have a destabilising impact way beyond its own borders. I therefore feel that Europe, Britain and Ireland can have an important shared responsibility, and contribution, to help find a unique solution for the future place of Northern Ireland within this consortium of relationships.
ZENIT: The possibility is being discussed in Ireland to modify the eighth Amendment of Article 40 of the Constitution, which sanctions the right to life of the unborn child. What is the atmosphere of the debate? In regard to topics such as abortion and homosexual marriage, it seems that the Protestant parties of Northern Ireland hold positions that are closer to those of the Catholic Church than the historical parties that represent the Catholic community . . .
In our submission to the Citizens’ Assembly, Two Lives, One Love (see link below), we affirm our belief that human life is sacred from conception until natural death and that the right to life is a fundamental personal right. There is no such thing as a human life without value. The deletion or amendment of Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution of Ireland would serve no purpose other than to withdraw the right to life from some categories of unborn children. To do so would radically change the principle, for all unborn children and indeed for all of us, that the right to life is a fundamental human right.
Pope Francis speaks about a ‘revolution of tenderness’. For me Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution of Ireland tenderly holds together the right to life of a mother and her child. Two Lives. One Love. Equality at its most fundamental and foundational moment – the beginning of new life. Supporting and sustaining a culture of life is in the interests of every woman and every generation and it defines us as a society. We have an obligation to be at our most compassionate, our most merciful, if and when the expectant mother and father and their unborn child require support during a crisis pregnancy.
On the Net:
About ‘Two Lives, One Love‘ (on Irish Bishops’ Website): http://www.catholicbishops.ie/2016/12/09/two-lives-one-love/