by Gordon Nary
Gordon: When were you appointed Bishop and how many parishes are in your diocese?
Bishop Donal: I was nominated Auxiliary Bishop in the Diocese of Down and Connor (which includes Belfast) in February 2001. After 13 years in that role, I was appointed as Bishop of Derry in February 2014. The Diocese of Derry is one of four in Ireland which lie partly in Northern Ireland (the UK and outside the European Union and with the Pound Sterling as currency) and partly in the Republic of Ireland (in the European Union and using the Euro). Being in two jurisdictions create some challenges! We have 52 parishes serving about 240,000 Catholics.
Gordon: What are your primary responsibilities as a Bishop?
Bishop Donal: The bishop is the principal teacher of the faith in his diocese. That involves using every opportunity and means of communication to speak into the real situations in which people seek to be disciples of Christ. There is also the role of sanctifying the People of God through a worthy celebration of the Liturgy and the Sacraments. And the bishop has the task of leading the diocese through these challenging times. That has to be done in a way that enables us to walk together in the light of the Lord. In the language of Ignatian discernment, we have to look at the reality we face, judge what we can do and begin to act, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit and of what Pope Francis calls the unruly Word of God. At this time, leadership means challenging a widespread narrative in church which talks about lack of vocations and a small church. Jesus, however, never thought small. This is an age to not be afraid and a time to believe that the Promised Land is always ahead of us never behind us!
Gordon: What impact has the Covid-10 pandemic had upon your diocese?
Bishop Donal: In some ways we do not know what the medium-term effects will be. In the short-term, it is clear that very many people have continued to stay at home and follow worship online. But that is no substitute for the real thing!
Parishes have been remarkably active in reaching out to people, even during lockdowns. Our Cathedral staff provided an almost monastic daily routine of on-line prayer, as well as four all-night vigils with prayer and fasting.
Online youth ministry has flourished in some ways, since young people could be gathered without having to be driven miles to a central point. We are now focused on forming young leaders who will support their peers during the synodal pathway and to World Youth Day in Lisbon in August 2023. As a former schoolteacher, I believe that it has always been young believers that have renewed the church. That applies in our day as well.
Gordon: What are the primary political challenges in Ireland?
Bishop Donal: There are quite different political challenges in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland. The latter has gone through a rapid process of economic boom and secularisation. Church has been lumped with other undesirable features of the past such as unemployment, poverty and immigration. The dominant narrative about ‘modern Ireland’ is that all of this past baggage must be dumped. That is a rather self-serving narrative which Church is now better able to question, since Church is no longer so tied to power.
In Northern Ireland – where Catholics were always a minority – we are all seeking to come to terms with a fractured and often violent past. Our conflict was never primarily between religious groups. Rather it was a long struggle between those who believe that Northern Ireland should belong to the United Kingdom and those who believe that there should be no border on the island of Ireland. Politically, we have to agree ways on how to deal with the pain of past conflict where most of the victims were civilians in the battle between Irish Republicans and those who supported the British presence. And how to deal with the past remains a weapon to be used in the ongoing political struggle. The Churches working together have been significant players in speaking truth and the need for reconciliation to our often-feuding political leaders!
Gordon: What can be done to reverse the government's position on abortion?
Bishop Donal: Abortion legislation was brought into the Republic after a referendum in May 2018. In Northern Ireland, the situation was changed by a July 2021 decision of the British parliament that instructed the NI Department of Health to provide abortion services. This occurred despite lack of agreement between NI political parties on the issue.
In these situations where abortions are described as a right and health service provision, Christian churches can only speak in favour of the sanctity of life and offer support to those who are contemplating abortion.
Gordon: Who is you favourite saint and why is that saint your favourite?
Bishop Donal: St Francis of Assisi was a wonderful person. He lived at a time when renewal was badly needed in the church. He knew intuitively the core elements of renewal, namely
- Simplicity of life as a prophetic witness,
- Building communities based on prayer and mission,
- A disarming love of God, neighbour and nature
Gordon: Thank you for a great interview.