ROME — The Vatican’s representative to Ireland, Archbishop Charles Brown, is being transferred to Albania after five years of mending ties between the two states.
It’s hard to overestimate the intensity of the crisis that gripped Vatican-Ireland relations when Pope Benedict XVI appointed Brown, then an official at the Vatican’s doctrine office, to the post in 2012.
Michael Kelly, the editor of The Irish Catholic weekly newspaper, told Crux diplomatic ties at the time were “at an all-time low.”
The previous Vatican ambassador to the country, Italian Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, had been accused by the government of not cooperating with official investigations into the clerical sexual abuse of children. In 2011, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny famously told the nation’s parliament this showed the “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.”
A few months later, Kenny closed the Irish Embassy to the Vatican.
The situation with the local Church was little better. The bishops enjoyed little respect in the national media, and the parliament was even considering legislation which would require priests to break the seal of confession in cases of sexual abuse.
On paper, Brown seemed a strange choice to send into such a fraught situation.
The New York native had not attended the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, where Vatican diplomats are trained. Instead, he had spent over ten years at the Vatican’s doctrine office, where he had worked closely with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, before he was elected pope.
Despite this lack of qualifications – or maybe because of it – he ended up being an inspired choice.
“Unlike previous papal nuncios, Brown concentrated a lot on the pastoral side of his ministry,” Kelly explained, “he quickly visited all the dioceses and made a regular habit of visiting parishes, communities and schools across the country. He was particularly supportive of local Church renewal initiatives and parish missions. He also gave generously of his time to youth movements that are trying to engage young people in the Church.”
Kelly said Brown has had a “tremendously positive effect” on the Church in Ireland, helped by the fact he was a native English-speaker with Irish ancestry.
Brown also worked to heal the rift with the Irish government, attending state events and often visiting the parliament to speak with politicians, creating what Kelly called “warm and respectful relations … built on mutual respect.”
The fact that he was a personal friend of Pope Benedict XVI probably didn’t hurt, either.
All of this work paid off when the Irish government reopened its embassy in Rome in 2014, and then welcomed the prospect of a visit by Pope Francis for the World Meeting of Families in Dublin in 2018.
Given this success, the timing of Brown’s move could be seen as a slight, since Vatican ambassadors are often allowed to stay in office until after papal visits they help to make happen.
However, Brown’s unusual prominence may have played a part in his move. The relationship between an apostolic nuncio and the local bishops is always a tightrope, and the crisis the Irish church faced in 2012 meant Brown’s role was always going to be larger than that of previous Vatican representatives.
With the rare positive spotlight which should be focused on the church during the visit by Pope Francis, it was probably felt more of that glow would fall on the local bishops if the current media-friendly nuncio was in Tirana. This is especially true since some of that light was already sure to be focused on Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the Irish-born head of the Vatican’s new Laity and Family office, which is responsible for coordinating the World Meeting of Families.
The Vatican’s Secretariat of State might also want a more traditional diplomat in the post, who can handle the delicate issues likely to come up in the future, including the possible damage “Brexit” could cause the peace process in Northern Ireland, which is underpinned by a shared EU citizenship and the free movement over the Ireland-Northern Ireland border.
Most importantly, no matter how well Brown has served the current pontiff, he was always going to be seen by some as Benedict’s man in Dublin, sent with the singular task of fixing a relationship that was dangerously close to being irreparably broken. Now that task is accomplished, the Vatican’s foreign ministry wants to make sure it has a more ‘normal’ diplomat on the ground when the Pope arrives.
Yet it might be dangerous if the new ambassador fails to build on the foundation of his untraditional predecessor.
“Archbishop Brown has mended a lot of fences with the Irish government, but relations are still fragile – any misstep from a new nuncio could plunge the relationship right back into a crisis,” Kelly said.
He added it would be a “step backwards” if the new Vatican representative retreated to his residence, and was not a regular feature of the local life in the Irish church.
“I would also like the pope to consider the importance of appointing someone who will be acquainted with the broad cultural shifts that have occurred in Irish Catholicism in recent decades and someone who will understand the effects the clerical abuse scandals have had on the Church in Ireland and the ongoing need to prioritize authentic Church renewal,” he said.
“The pope would do well to note,” Kelly continued, “that the perceived lack of cooperation with judicial investigations into clerical sexual abuse by previous nuncios was a major factor in contributing to the bad relationship that developed between Ireland and the Vatican.”