Even now, nearly two months after the Pope announced the appointment of the Archdiocese of Tuam’s Fr Fintan Monahan as Bishop of Killaloe, Ireland’s newest bishop has trouble getting to grips with the fact that this happened.
“I’m still getting over the shock and surprise of being chosen by Pope Francis,” he tells The Irish Catholic ahead of his episcopal ordination last Sunday.
“In jobs like that you don’t give in your CVs and apply. It was a total surprise – our changes had just been made in Tuam, and we were settling on for another year.”
Born in Tullamore, Co. Offaly, in 1967, Bishop Fintan moved with his family to Carraroe, Co. Galway, in 1980, from where he left for Maynooth to begin his priestly studies in 1984.
Ordained in 1991, he was a curate in Connemara until 1993, before taking up a new post at Jarlath’s College in Tuam, where he taught science, Irish and religion until 2006.
He became chaplain to the college and diocesan secretary that year, since then working in communications and vocations promotion in the diocese.
Despite his surprise at being asked to leave his post in Tuam, he hit the ground running in his new diocese, getting to know the area and people ahead of the ordination Mass.
“I had to move my stuff down about three weeks ago,” he says, “and once people know you’re around you get invited to everything that’s going on.”
Since then he’s been involved in the opening of schools and celebrated Masses across the diocese, whether in Ennis itself, his episcopal seat, or in Doonbeg, Shannon, Tulla, Nenagh, or elsewhere.
“It’s amazing how you criss-cross the diocese very quickly through ad hoc events,” he says, although he intends to get to know the diocese more systematically soon.
“I do plan to do that in a more organised way,” he says, explaining how in the absence of a bishop last year the various parishes took the lead in arranging the timing of their own Confirmation ceremonies, and how advice had been given this year to do likewise.
Since then, though, he said, “I was appointed, and I’m giving them the option this year, where if they want me to come and do Confirmations, just let me know.
“If they want to stick to their own arrangements, having their own specific date where they have arrangements in place that’s okay, but they’re getting back at the moment and we’ll do out a Confirmation schedule.”
The Confirmation schedule will provide an organised calendar for getting acquainted with the diocese, he says, but his movements won’t be limited to that.
“The remainder will be done by pastoral visits, whether that be during the week or on weekends,” he continues, “oftentimes it may be more effective to visit during the week when you might be able to meet pastoral councils and you meet the daily Massgoers and those who go round on the First Friday call list – they really appreciate that – and can visit the schools and the nursing homes.”
With about 150 primary schools and 20 secondary schools in the diocese, along with 58 parishes, he’ll have his work cut out.
“That’s the immediate plan,” he says, “you want to get to as many places as you can, without killing oneself. It’s a huge diocese – it extends from west Clare to Co. Laois, and I believe in the car it’s three hours to go from one side to the other, because you’re almost criss-crossing the whole country and some roads mightn’t be great. “
At the same time, it’s clear that this isn’t alien territory to the new bishop, as the diocese reminds him of his old diocese of Tuam, with sparsely populated rural areas and reasonably large towns like Ennis, Nenagh, and Birr.
Various religious groups are a valuable presence in the diocese too, he says, citing as examples the Poor Clares, the Franciscans, the Mercy Sisters, and the Cistercians at Roscrea.
“It’s a great support and back up to have so many religious still there, even though a lot of them are getting a lot older,” he says, continuing, “I’m glad that they’re there.”
Under no illusions about the challenges facing him in Killaloe, Bishop Fintan reels off a host of things that will need his attention, while constantly recognising the good work others – both clerical and lay – have done and are doing.
Perhaps the most obvious priorities for him are the interlinked issues of vocations promotion and youth ministry, and having been involved in vocation work in Tuam, he knows what he is talking about when he expresses a great sense of satisfaction at the great involvement of lay people in running parishes, but says this doesn’t obviate the need for more priests.
“You see some of the elderly clergy keeping things together when you have clusters of four parishes cared for by maybe three priests,” he says, “and if they’re one down when someone gets sick it makes things very difficult, despite the lay people doing their best. In practically every diocese in the country if there were an increase of 10-15% in clergy, it’d be fine.”
Clergy don’t come from thin air, of course, and in emphasising the importance of youth ministry, he says, “when you look at so many of the congregations, you’d wonder in 25 years’ time will there be anybody there at all”.
“Even though I know young people often return to their faith when their own children come along, there’s no guarantee that that’ll happen in the next generation,” he says, continuing, “so certainly commitment to youth ministry will be huge, in whatever way that can be done.”
There is no shortage of ideas in this area, of course, and the bishop mentions how NET Ministries are taking up a role in Killaloe this week, how diocesan Taizé groups have a good record in participating in things like World Youth Day and how ideas can be drawn from the likes of Youth 2000.
Even citing the example of choirs, he says, “young people are very willing and happy to get involved, but keeping them there and getting them over that stage in their late teens and college where they don’t always continue to practice their faith is the challenge”.
Observing that, “they fall into an abyss at that stage”, he says, “It’s so difficult to engage people at university level and the early years of their working careers, and a lot of the time they can be lost and may not return, so that is an area of concern along with vocations”.
One of the most contentious issues in Killaloe over recent years was the attempt to introduce the permanent diaconate to the diocese which was halted in autumn 2014 following objections from those who felt the last thing the area needed was another layer of male clergy.
Regarding the possibility of the idea being revived, Bishop Fintan says: “Consultation on a wide level would need to be done if it were to come in, but in the meantime Pope Francis has set up a commission to look at the possibility of women deacons, so obviously because it’s an area of contention in Killaloe, we’d wait and see what the outcome of that would be, however long that would take.
“We’re very much in an era where a bishop needs to consult, and that’s what I’d be very much committed to,” he adds.
In a sacramental sense, he highlights Eucharistic adoration as something to which he is especially committed, acknowledging how it’s been a big thing in parishes he’d visited in Clare. “I’d like to expand that, because of course great things can come from having a good Eucharistic adoration group in every parish,” he says.
Other issues for him would include caring for the clergy the diocese has already got, religious education and formation, and child protection, and he notes that “the protection of life will be a major issue over the next few months, I suppose, from womb to tomb, with the push to repeal the Eight Amendment”.
Family ministry in general will be a huge issue for him too, he says, especially in the lead up to 2018’s World Meeting of Families – and, he hopes, an accompanying visit by the Pope.
Expressing concerns about how Ireland’s homelessness crisis has reared its head in Ennis, he also highlights how there’s a growing sense of an East-West socio-economic divide in Ireland, and says a priority needs to be doing whatever can be done to enhance and support the quality of rural life, noting that “there’s a deep sense of loneliness among people in remote rural areas like in Clare”.
More broadly, he sees faith renewal as a key priority, with so many baptised Catholics having fallen away from practice, and he says that a culture of basic evangelisation needs to be built on now we live in a time which is not as open to the religious dimension of life as it once was.
A real challenge, he says, is addressing the falling away of sacramental practice, and “finding new ways to communicate the joy of the Gospel that Pope Francis often talks about”.
He’s hugely informed, he says, by Pope Emeritus Benedict’s vision of the Church as a creative minority.
“The vision that I’d have overall is that we’re becoming kind of a minority culture,” he says, continuing, “Benedict has been saying this for years: in Europe, though the Church is becoming a minority, it must be a ‘creative minority.
“The Churches in the future will be smaller, and more purified in some ways, and the people who are faith-practising within the Churches will be hugely dedicated, and will have to be as creative as possible if they want to expand and to spread the Faith, to keep it alive, to keep it vibrant, to keep the level of practice going,” he continues, noting how he’s been impressed by the youth, vibrancy, and enthusiasm for the Faith he’s witnessed in Ireland’s Polish communities.
“That’s probably the way the Irish Church is going in the future: it’ll be very committed, a lot smaller but please God very dedicated and very committed to the Gospel values,” he says.
Such thinking wasn’t uncommon at the recent ‘Baby Bishops’ training course he attended in Rome, where he says one French bishop told him he hadn’t a single seminarian and wondered what support could be available for seminarians.
Vocations promotion was very much to the fore among those on the course, he said, noting that some American bishops had had huge success in this and were now at the cutting edge of how to think about adult faith formation.
He describes other bishops saying how pilgrimages and faith groups like Communion and Liberation and the Focolares that offer an experience of community and Communion can be especially helpful, drawing forth vocations by appealing to the heart as well as the head.
“These are the sort of things that seem to have success with young people, that they seem to be attracted to, whereas the parish system doesn’t seem to be as attractive for them,” he observes.
He contrasts the situation of successful American dioceses with that of bishops from the developing world, and those from the Middle East concerned about the very survival, saying that among the gathered bishops, “There were a whole range of issues, and you really got a sense of the universal Church,” adding, “We’re almost in between the extremes of those on the honours course and those who are struggling with very basic needs.”
“You count your blessings when compared to the problems that others have,” he says.
Given this, he doesn’t lose hope. “Overall in Ireland, though they may not wear it on their sleeves, I think people still have a genuine faith core and faith base and love of the basics of the Christian faith. We’re certainly coming from that, and though in some ways it’s kind of dormant” – he notes that it comes to the fore at times of tragedy – “the challenge is to try and awaken that sleeping giant,” he says.
Meantime, he’s all set for his local challenge in Killaloe, noting how the release of his episcopal crest and motto got a lot of attention on Twitter and Facebook, drawing together traditional and very modern aspects of his role.
His coat of arms is a combination of Killaloe’s diocesan crest with his own family crest, he says, with a few key modifications, notably three stars to represent the three saints – Our Lady, St Joseph, and St John the Evangelist – who appeared at Knock, and the broken chariot wheel of St Jarleth, clearly a guiding light for the priest so long linked with St Jarleth’s College.
“St Jarleth was commissioned and sent off with a sense of mission and vocation, and told that wherever his chariot wheel would break he would found his diocese there. There are themes of brokenness, resurrection, and new life bound up in that symbol,” he says, adding, “I didn’t want to overdo that I was coming from Tuam but they were two hugely important symbols to have there in Killaloe.”
That these trappings of episcopacy should have got attention on social media isn’t really surprising, given how Bishop Fintan has been active on both Facebook and Twitter since 2010.
Admitting that neither is cutting edge for young people now, he nonetheless maintains that “it’s a way of reaching people that you may not in conventional practice”, pointing to how Armagh’s Archbishop Eamon Martin and Kildare and Leighlin’s Bishop Denis Nulty are – like Pope Francis! – both active on Twitter, while Elphin’s Bishop Kevin Doran is “a good Facebooker”.
While it can be time consuming, he says it definitely has its value, and allows connections to can be made in all manner of surprising ways. “It can help in odd ways to boost people in their prayer lives and bring them back to Church,” he says.
That said, he admits “the whole area is evolving all the time, with little video clips being the way to go now, though that sort of thing is very time-consuming in terms of editing, but it matters to try to keep up with that as much as possible to the degree that it’s efficient”.
No doubt there’ll be a ready audience for his first online homilies!