ROME — While Ireland has long enjoyed a privileged place on the global Catholic map, the past few months have been particularly demanding for Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh —largely due to the fact that the successor of Saint Patrick has been spending a lot of time with the successor of Saint Peter.

In August, Ireland played host to the Vatican-organized World Meeting of Families, which drew over 30,000 pilgrims to Dublin for its Congress of Families, and hundreds of thousands more for events with Pope Francis. Now, Martin is in Rome for almost the entire month of October as a delegate at the Synod of Bishops on Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment.

Martin, whose official title is Primate of All Ireland, may speak at times with a soft and gentle voice, but his passion for young people and the family is hardly understated.

In an interview with Crux, he detailed how he believes:

  • Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò “hijacked” the World Meeting of Families by releasing an 11-page letter accusing Francis of mishandling sexual abuse claims on the final day of his visit to Ireland.
  • Young people today are often “sheep without a shepherd,” and how he hopes the synod can offer a course correction.
  • How the much-anticipated February 2019 Vatican summit of presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world on sex abuse won’t provide a single-bullet solution, but is still a positive step in the right direction.
  • Why individuals such as Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin should be invited to participate in the February meeting as an expert in the field.

Crux: The last time we chatted with you was during the World Meeting of Families in August. Before we jump into the synod, now that the dust has settled, what’s the verdict on the World Meeting? Are you happy with how it went?

We’re extremely happy with how it went. I think it’s really the tale of two congresses: there’s what happened on the ground, and then there’s what happened in the media. Essentially on the ground, it was an event of great joy and participation in the life of the Church. We got a great sense of a vibrant, dynamic Church, not just in Ireland, but indeed, the world.

We were blessed to have so many visitors from around the world — families and young people milling about during the congress itself and then, of course, the wonderful Festival of Families and the closing Mass in Phoenix Park where Pope Francis, in a huge gesture of vulnerability, expressed his personal sorrow for the actions of the Church in terms of abuse. We had all of that, both a very moving and uplifting ecclesiastical experience.

Then, on the other hand, we had a huge concentration on the abuse issue, which was merited by the reports from the States and around the world about abuse.

In case anyone has forgotten, it was during the World Meeting of Families that the famous letter from Archbishop Carlo Mario Viganò, the former papal ambassador to the United States, was released, accusing Pope Francis of being aware of sexual misconduct concerns about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and not acting — it all erupted during the middle of your event.

Exactly. It was on the last day of the event and we were actually flying out to Knock, the national Marian Shrine of Ireland, and we became aware of the fact that overnight in the States this news had broken.

I have to say, personally, I was very saddened. I was saddened that this was overshadowing what was otherwise a really important celebration of family and the importance of families in the new evangelization of the faith. In some ways, I felt our World Meeting of Families had been hijacked in a way by this particular letter.

In the same way, I think Pope Francis dealt with it very quietly and with great serenity. You may remember that it was that morning when he arrived at the shrine in Knock, the first thing he did was he went into the shrine chapel and we had a full five minutes of silence where he was clearly, I imagine, placing this very grave situation at the feet of Our Lady and asking for her intercession and her guidance. There was an amazing feeling in Knock, I was there myself, to have tens of thousands of people go silent.

What was very beautiful about that for me was the fact that the apparition of Our Lady at Knock is quite unique — when she appeared at Knock she said nothing, she was silent before the lamb, before the altar, with the presence of St. Joseph and St. John. I felt Pope Francis was entering into that silent space of contemplation. No doubt within his mind was all of this stuff swirling around about the Viganò letter, but perhaps he was placing it all at the feet of Our Lady, the Queen of Ireland and asking for her protection and her intercession.

You’re a participant in this Synod of Bishops on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment. From the outside, many of us have noted that this synod seems to have a different vibe than the first two in the Pope Francis era — much less conflictual, much less racked by tension, and there seems to be more a positive spirit. Have you noticed that, and if so, what do you attribute it to?

I have noticed that. I have a sense that we are all still before the challenge of getting the word of God, getting the encounter with Jesus Christ out to our young people. I think we are together in realizing the challenges and the concrete realities of the lives of our young people who are struggling really before all sorts of contradictory messages, all sort of things pulling them this way and that, and we in the Church know that we have the answer, we know that we have the reason for hoping, the reason for living and that is Jesus Christ, but we just do not know how we get that message out there.

In my group, we felt very drawn to our story of John the Baptist where he says, “Look, there is the lamb of God.” Somehow, we as Church, have to say to our young people in the midst of all these crazy surroundings, “look, we have the goal, we have the message we have Jesus, come and see,” — that tremendous invitation to the faith that we can offer to our young people. This synod has really been about the mammoth task that we share and to get across to our young people the message of life, the message of hope, the message of love that is at the heart of the gospel.

What would you say is the most impressive speech you’ve heard in the past few weeks?

There have been so many. What makes this synod quite unique is the presence of the young delegates. They have been fearless really, they have been wonderfully prophetic amongst us in stating it as they see it, in challenging us as Church to walk with them, to accompany them, and place our resources at their disposal. Some of the most powerful interventions for me were a young girl from Pakistan talking about what it’s like to live as a young Catholic in an environment where the Christian faith, never mind the Catholic faith, is something that is quite a minority.

We’ve had powerful stories about migrants throughout the world, where in some of the African countries up to ninety percent of young people fleeing their country or leaving attracted by the Western dream, which might actually be a mirage in many ways, only to have their lives ended in the Mediterranean Sea. We’ve heard very powerful stories of persecution, young people being drawn into persecution, human trafficking, being recruited as child soldiers.

In the midst of all of that, I’m also thinking about young people in Ireland and young people in the west who are so vulnerable to all that is hitting them from the digital media, from these transitory, superficial attractions that are drawing them away, to the huge presence of mental health issues. I just think above all, the phrase that came to my mind so many times is “sheep without a shepherd.” Our young people are harassed by so much stuff around them and somehow we have to be able to offer them a reason for hoping and a reason for living — sadly, so many of them taking their lives feeling that life is meaningless — and yet we have something precious to offer them.

You’ll be back here in Rome in February as head of the Irish Bishops’ Conference, since Pope Francis has summoned the presidents of every bishops’ conference around the world to the Vatican for a summit on sexual abuse and child protection. What are your hopes for that in terms of its outcome and specifically, what do you think the Irish Church from its own experience, can offer the global Church?

First off, I should say my hopes are rather contained. I think it would be rather foolish for us to think that somehow by bringing the head of the bishops’ conferences from around the world for three or four days is going to solve this deeply entrenched crisis, this trauma that is there at the moment.

I welcome the meeting, however, and think it’s important for us to acknowledge as the Church universal that this is something that we all own and that it is not simply an issue for Ireland, Germany, or the United States or whatever countries have been through this terrible purgatorial experience over the last number of decades. I think if we can communicate to some of the younger churches, and churches that were perhaps originally missionary territory, that this is a reality that you have to face up to, that you have to have robust and stringent norms, and procedures to protect children and vulnerable people, I think if it achieves that, it will be a success.

On the other hand, I’m a little worried that we’re talking it up so much to think that somehow we’re going to be able, in the case of a few days, to put into place accountability structures, which are clearly necessary. I think that countries like Ireland, England, the United States, are going to be able to share what they’ve been doing, perhaps jolt some of the other countries out of the natural denial that there tends to be within a family or in a parish or a church that this is a reality. Hopefully, by sharing our experience, we’ll be able to convince the others to put into place the same kinds of principles, norms, and protection mechanisms that we have.

The big issue is going to be about accountability of those who have mismanaged cases of abuse, and I think that’s something that all countries are going to have to think about and own up to and say, “Listen, the mismanagement of abuse was endemic in our Church. We were like any other family and tended to think it wasn’t there, and we kept it quiet. We were not transparent.” In Ireland, we have learned that we must be immediately and promptly cooperative with civil authorities, we must allow natural justice to take its course, we must be answerable in the law courts, and we must do everything we can to help the healing process of victims and survivors of abuse, and we must be grounded and humble in all of our dealing with this issue.

Last, speaking of contributions the Irish Church can make, your confrere, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin is someone a lot of people look to who is kind of a hero and leader on the reform efforts when it comes to child protection. He’s not the head of your bishops’ conference, but would you hope he can have a role in this meeting?

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has a knowledge and understanding of this issue which I think is second to none. I think that his presence at the meeting in February would be hugely positive, as well as others, no doubt, who are not presidents of their episcopal conference but who have gained an awful lot of experience and know how to deal with this issue. I think we really need to hear from them as experts in this field.