The Irish bishops are just finishing up their first ad limina visit to Rome in 10 years – a time that’s been marked by a rapid increase in secularism, the legalization of same-sex marriage and the country's tragic clerical sex abuse crisis.
However, despite the vast array of challenges the Irish bishops
currently face and the many hurdles they have already overcome, one
topic stood out, and was mentioned in every single meeting they had with
different Vatican departments: the role women in the Church today.
“I would say I don't think there was any congregation that we didn't
mention it,” Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick told CNA Jan. 20.
He called the attention currently being given to women and their role “one of the signs of the times.”
The Holy Spirit “is saying something,” Leahy said, adding that while
exactly what the Holy Spirit wants is “the big question for us all,” one
area that keeps coming up is engaging women more in decision-making
Bishop Leahy is just one of the many Irish prelates who gathered in
Rome last week for their ad limina visit, which typically serves as a
time of rest and prayer for bishops during which they meet with the Pope
and have the opportunity to visit each of the Vatican departments.
He was one of four bishops who spoke to journalists after their Jan.
20 meeting with Pope Francis, which lasted just over two hours and
covered a wide range of topics.
Other prelates who spoke were Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh in
Northern Ireland and president of the Irish bishops' conference,
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin and Bishop Denis Nulty of Kildare
In his comments to CNA, Bishop Leahy noted that “women are so much at
the heart of the Church in Ireland, they are very, very involved in the
However, throughout the past 10 years of meetings, assemblies and, in
his case, a diocesan synod, the bishops have been doing a lot of
listening, and one thing they’ve consistently heard from women is they
want their role to be “more greatly enhanced,” visible, appreciated and
This is a reflection they brought up with each of the Vatican
dicasteries they visited, as well as with the Pope, who “recognizes that
it is a serious issue.”
Leahy said that during their meeting with the Pope, led as a
conversation with no prepared text, Francis pointed to Swiss theologian
Hans von Balthasar, which has done in the past, offering reflections on
two specific dimensions in the Church: the Petrine and the Marian.
“Peter, Mary...these two profiles. Because they are complimentary,”
he said. “Women bring their way of seeing things, their way of
understanding, their way of feeling about issues, their distinctiveness
into the life of the Church.”
While the topic itself and what it means for the work and life of the
Church requires more reflection, “we need to appreciate” the specific
qualities that women bring, and “we need to see how we can articulate
However, referring to Pope Francis' advice, Leahy cautioned that
while the enhancing the role of women must be pursued, it shouldn’t be
approached from a “simply functionalistic perspective.”
“We can't just come up with simplistic solutions, and I think women
themselves would be the first to say that,” he said, explaining that the
next step is to explore together “how best to articulate the life of
the Church in such a way that women will feel that their role is
The bishop said that after their meetings in the Vatican, he feels
that their concern about the topic “has been heard,” and “to be fair,
we’re not the only ones saying it.”
Pope Francis himself often says the role of women is something the
entire Church needs to look into, he said, explaining that for he and
his fellow bishops in Ireland, they will head back with plans for “a
tremendous engagement” based on listening and dialogue.
Referring to Pope Francis’ constant emphasis on the importance of
discernment, Leahy said there’s no quick solution, but it’s something
that “needs time, it needs reflection, it needs exploration to discern
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin echoed Leahy’s sentiments,
telling journalists that one of the “most alienated groups” in Ireland
is “young women.”
He said that specifically in their meeting with the Congregation for
the Doctrine of the Faith, they discussed the areas in the Church where
“a stronger position” of not only women, but laypeople in general, “is
not only licit, but is desirable.”
Other issues touched on by the bishops in their meeting with the Pope
were youth, vocations, the influx of refugees to the country, and of
course the Pope’s upcoming visit to Ireland in 2018 for the World
Meeting of Families
Although the bishops’ visit comes in wake of the abuse scandal that
rocked the country and a rapid increase in secularization, Archbishop
Eamon Martin said none of the bishops felt “under investigation” or
interrogation during the ad limina.
It was “a very different atmosphere,” particularly in their meeting with the Pope, which he called a “fascinating encounter.”
“We haven’t received any raps on the knuckles,” but were rather
assured that they are “not alone” in the challenges the face, many of
which stem from the fact that the voice of the Church and her authority
in society and in the lives of individuals has taken a drastic dip, in
large part due to the abuse scandal.
Archbishop Diarmuid said the bishops “are realistic about the challenges
we are facing in Ireland at the moment,” but are also hopeful that they
are moving to “a new place of encounter and dialogue” in Irish society
where the Church has an important voice.
“Not the dominating voice or domineering voice that perhaps some say
we’ve had in the past – but we are contributing to important
conversations” on topics such as life, marriage, family, poverty and
Discussion also focused at length on how to be a bishop, with the
Pope comparing their role to a goalkeeper, “and the shots keep coming
from everywhere, and you stand there ready to take them from wherever
While there was “a fair bit of laughing and joking,” the bishops all got very serious when talking about abuse.
Archbishop Martin said the number of abuses in Ireland “was small
compared to society at large,” and noted that the Church has made
significant progress since the scandals came out.
Referring to their meeting with the Pontifical Commission for the
Protection of Minors, Archbishop Eamon Martin pointed to a four-step
model Benedict XVI recommended to them when the abuse scandal first
broke out in the country: to establish the truth of what happened, put
preventative procedures into place, to adhere to justice and to bring
“We’ve been working in all four areas,” he said, noting that in the
healing process for those abused, “to have their story told” makes a big
Ireland is “now speaking from a sense of maturity” and can be a
reference point to the rest of the Church from their position, he said,
noting that as he was speaking a new report was published in Belfast by
leaders of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry in Northern
Ireland on the abuse of children in residential institutions, some run
by Catholic religious orders.
Overall there was a recognition that Ireland had gone “through a bad
time – not for us, but particularly for children who were abused,” he
said, adding that there was also an acknowledgment that “anything that
we did would inevitably be inadequate in responding to the suffering