Honestly, you’d have to be a detective with the deductive powers of Poirot to decipher some of the musings of the Archbishop of Dublin over the years.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin was at it again last week when he appeared to cast doubt over the future of the Irish College in Rome when he said the return of three of its four staff – first reported by this paper but unacknowledged by The Irish Times newspaper in its story days later – was “related to the ongoing future of the Irish College . . .”.

The archbishop had been asked by The Irish Times whether the announcement of the staff changes was related to last year’s Apostolic Visitation to the college by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.

He replied: “I’d say it’s related to the ongoing future of the Irish College, rather than directly with the visitation. The big question the visitation never addressed was how can Ireland at the moment maintain two seminaries,” Dr Martin said.

The Irish Times, somewhat understandably, jumped at this and thought it meant he was hinting at the closure of the college and put it on the front page.

But yours truly is not so easily led astray by the enigmatic pronouncements from the good archbishop.

We contacted the archdiocese’s communications office and the archbishop’s spokeswoman says he was not casting doubts on the future of the college which the headline on the front page of The Irish Times suggested – she said that The Irish Times headline did not accurately reflect what he said – but that he was raising questions and exploring how the college might look in the future.

One can hardly blame the secular headline writer as several priests I’ve spoken to were at a loss to understand what the archbishop was trying to say in the article.  

However, The Irish Catholic, in its recent move of offices, found an old Enigma decryption machine in our basement and we fed The Irish Times article through it.

Here below then, in my considered opinion, is what the archbishop seems to be really digging at when he said: “For me the question for the Irish College isn’t the staff, it is where are we going to get the students for it? If it’s going to be a vibrant seminary then you need the candidates,” he said.

“We have to find a way in which we’ll have a sufficient number of seminarians to make it a viable seminary ... it could become a postgraduate house or some of it could be a postgraduate house ... at the moment the Irish are in the minority [there].”

Later he added recalling his own time in the Teutonic College in Rome that “its best days were when there was a good strong core of Germans”.

However, “there was one particular period when there were many nationalities [and] it began to lose its identity,” he said.

My interpretation of what the archbishop is saying is that he wants the Irish College to be populated with Irish students but there are not enough for both Maynooth and Rome.

Is he then preparing the way to move Dublin seminarians to Rome? He only has seven seminarians so that wouldn’t make much of a difference.

That idea was circulating during the visitation and certainly the future of Maynooth was discussed by the visitors too.

But the visitors left the future of both seminaries wide open apparently having discussed their possible closure which goes someway to explain the apparent frustration of the archbishop with the failure of the visitation to deal with how the Irish Church could run two seminaries.

A Dublin push for the Irish College to remain open over Maynooth would add up. It would make sense given that the new rector of the Irish College was the only member of the four member staff not to be sent home.

Fr Ciarán O’Carroll, a historian, is a trusted priest of the Dublin diocese and a man seen as a guy to get a job done.

The job in this case was to implement the reforms of the visitation report into the Irish College, described by one person who has read it as “damning”.

Fr Brendan Leahy, who was being pushed for the job before O’Carroll, was apparently asked to stand down as nominee for the position as a theologian of his worth would be needed later on for filling some of the vacant dioceses.

There is no doubt but that the visitation report was very strong on the Irish College and despite what way the archbishop wants to sell it, the three priests are coming back to Ireland because of the visitation.

According to one excellent source, the visitation report said that some members of the staff were “critical of any emphasis on Rome, tradition, piety or assertive orthodoxy”.

Clearly the visitation is tightening up on the orthodoxy of staff in the seminary even if all are being tarred with the same brush. It also appears that the students in the Irish College had a huge influence on the visitators’ report.

So with the college getting new staff (names are said to have been chosen) and his own man in place there, you would think that the archbishop would be putting out a clear positive vision for the college and in the run up to an International Congress and a Year of Faith would be making positive sounds encouraging new vocations.

But you would be wrong. He is on the record as looking for ideas about how the diocese can get more vocations which doesn’t sound reassuring for future intakes.

Two of his nine seminarians have left Maynooth since the autumn and there has been concern expressed by Dublin priests that the trainee priests have a “restorationist agenda” and little interest in pastoral ministry.

The archbishops’ joint formation events for parish pastoral workers, candidate deacons and seminarians have met with negativity among some priests who see the equating of pastoral workers with ordained ministers as determental to encouraging priestly vocations.

He has also commissioned pastoral workers during an ordination ceremony (July 2010) which apparently brought some heat from Rome because of the confusion it was causing.

It certainly suggests that if ordination isn’t that special then why would young men opt for it and not instead become pastoral workers with no celibacy requirements and a €40k pay packet, €15k more than a priest.

Now others might say that the archbishop is forward looking while others don’t want to move with the times. And others might say that the Vatican would do well amalgamating many of the smaller dioceses, cut the number of bishops and bring all the seminarians for Ireland to Rome where there would be a vibrant Irish College, exposed to the international Catholic tradition thus raising the bar for training, orthodoxy and overall best practice for Irish seminarians. If this is what the archbishop has in mind, why doesn’t he just come out and say it!

Winston Churchill once said of Russia (Archbishop Martin’s brother Seamus was The Irish Times Moscow correspondent for many years) that it was “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. The same could be said for the public utterances of Seamus’ brother.

Spero columnist Garry O'Sullivan is the managing editor of the Irish Catholic and is based in Dublin.



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