The papal nuncio on Catholic challenges

By Patsy Mcgarry
Irish Times
August 22, 2015

Papal Nuncio Archbishop Charles Brown believes relations between Ireland and the Vatican are now “quite good and immensely improved from four years ago”.
Photo by Eric Luke

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Ireland’s Catholic bishops have been praised by the papal nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, for the compassion with which they dealt with marriage-equality issues before May’s referendum.

He also says that the description of the referendum result as a defeat for humanity by the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, was more nuanced in the original Italian than translation.

The nuncio warns against Catholics becoming a caricature of themselves through a seeming preoccupation with moral issues to the exclusion of all others and rejects criticisms that there has been less consultation before the appointment of bishops since his arrival in Ireland, in 2012. He will not be drawn on whether priests have declined invitations to become bishops.

Relations between Ireland and the Vatican have improved immensely, he says. He does not accept criticisms of the Vatican and of his two immediate predecessors for lack of co-operation with the Murphy commission. In all such instances Rome followed what international law required.

On the Vatican’s handling of the clerical child sex-abuse crisis generally, he believes there was a growing awareness of the gravity of the issue through the 1990s but that there had been differences of approach by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where he worked for 17 years before his arrival in Ireland, and that of the Congregation of Clergy.

The declining number of priests in Ireland is a huge problem, he said, but he remains very positive about the faith of the people.

His office as nuncio played no role in the disciplining of Irish priests by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, such as that of Fr Tony Flannery, but he says was kept informed in such cases.

Archbishop Brown acknowledges that January 2012, when he took up his post in Ireland, was a very difficult period.

Months previously, following the publication of the Cloyne report, in July 2011, Taoiseach Enda Kenny excoriated the Vatican in Dáil Éireann for lack of co-operation with the Murphy commission, which was investigating the handling of allegations of clerical child sexual abuse in the Dublin and Cloyne dioceses.

In October 2011 the nuncio at the time, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, left Ireland not to return, and in November 2011 Ireland’s Embassy to the Holy See was closed. It was “a time of difficulty, of tension”, his successor says.

Strained relations

Brown was “very, very surprised” when, at the end of 2011, Pope Benedict asked him to become nuncio to Ireland, partly because he had not served in diplomacy for the Vatican before and partly because of the “very strained relations between the Holy See and Ireland at that point in time”.

He believes that he was asked “because I spoke English and I have Irish connections. The extent to which Pope Benedict was actually aware of my Irish connections when he nominated me, I’m not 100 per cent sure.”

Of the nuncio’s eight great-grandparents, five were from Ireland.

Since arriving here Brown has made it his policy “absolutely” to get out and about among the people.

“It’s been wonderful. I think given the difficulties that existed in 2011, I thought it was important for me to do what Pope Francis has subsequently said . . . to go out. To open up the nunciature, to get out and see people, to ride the bus in Dublin, to go to parishes, schools, kindergartens, to old folks’ homes and to engage.”

He says that he believes relations between Ireland and the Vatican are now “quite good and immensely improved from four years ago”.

The reopening last year of the Irish Embassy to the Holy See “was really one of the most happy and joyful occasions that I’ve had since I’ve been nuncio here in Ireland . . . and the appointment of a terrific young and incredibly competent Ambassador, in the person of Emma Madigan, who is doing an amazing job in Rome and is well liked by, everyone including the pope.”

As to whether the Vatican and his two immediate predecessors as nuncios should have co-operated with Murphy commission investigations, he believes “that the Holy See, at that time, was following what international law required in those cases”.

On the perception that the Vatican hid behind protocols rather than hand over documents, he says that “these were decisions made on the basis of international law before I arrived about which I had no knowledge”.

Since the archbishop’s arrival in Ireland, 10 Catholic bishops have been appointed, with a vacancy in Killaloe diocese and four other bishops now over retirement age. None of the bishops appointed on his watch was from the diocese he now leads. This has led the Association of Catholic Priests to claim that there has been of lack of consultation before such appointments.

Brown is “not totally convinced that there has been a huge difference” in how bishops were appointed before his arrival and now. The appointments from outside dioceses was “not an absolute rule written in stone”, but he regards it as “fair to say that in the church universal, generally, for the past probably 10 or 15 years the tendency has been to appoint new bishops from outside dioceses”.

Consultation before the appointment of a bishop is “widespread”. The amount of documentation that goes to Rome about every episcopal candidate “ would be in the neighbourhood of 35 to 70 pages of consultation, of analysis, opinions, which the Congregation for Bishops and then Pope Francis himself goes through and decides on who the pope will choose as bishop.”

The other Irish bishops are also consulted. They, as elsewhere, “give to the nuncio every year or two years a list of candidates for the episcopate . . . Each province produces a list of candidates.”

‘Smell of the sheep’

What is being sought is someone, in “the words of Pope Francis, ‘who has the smell of the sheep’ ” off them. Someone “who will be a good father, pastor, brother to his priests, with everything that implies . . . someone who needs to be able to preach relatively well, and communicate the beauty of the Catholic faith to his people . . . someone who also needs to be able to administer relatively well”.

As for stories circulating of priests refusing invitations to become bishops, the nuncio is unable “to confirm or deny that, because when the pope asks someone to be a bishop it’s a very personal invitation”.

The shortage of priests in Ireland is “a huge problem”. But he remains “very, very positive and affirmative of the faith of the Irish people. I think it’s safe to say that there are few countries in Europe . . . where the practice of the faith is as high as it is in Ireland today.”

On the same-sex-marriage referendum campaign, he thinks that the “the bishops of Ireland did an excellent job in presenting in a compassionate, convincing way the teaching of the church on this issue”. He did not publicly comment on the issue during the campaign, as “it’s not the role of an ambassador from any nation to comment on matters of political decision in the country where he’s representing his own country”.

Yet he spoke out strongly against abortion at the World Day of Peace Mass in Dublin on January 1st, 2014, just before debate on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. “The objective of that Mass is to present the pope’s letter on the World Day of Peace, and in that letter that year there was a large paragraph on the right to life and abortion.” This was the reason “why I spoke about abortion that day”.

What about Cardinal Parolin’s description of the result of the same-sex-marriage referendum as a “defeat for humanity”? Brown says, “You’d have to ask Cardinal Parolin, who is my boss, about that. I believe he was speaking in Italian . . . so he didn’t actually say that.”

In what he did say, the cardinal was trying to express that the result “was a defeat on the level of nature, on the level of human nature and what we believe on the basis of natural law about marriage”.

Brown had worked at the doctrinal section of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before coming to Ireland. “I had the good fortune of not working on sexual-abuse cases, but I was certainly aware of what was going on,” he says. There was “a growing awareness of the gravity and, let’s be honest, the relatively large numbers of these cases that were occurring, had occurred, throughout the world”.

In the 1990s “there was a question about whether the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would deal with these cases or the Congregation for the Clergy”. There was “certainly a difference of approach”.

The then prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, refused to back the Irish bishops’ 1996 and 2005 child-protection guidelines, as they stipulated that all allegations be reported to the civil authorities. His term as prefect, which ended in 2006, was subsequently described as disastrous by Irish bishops.

“I think that all allegations of sexual abuse by members of the clergy need to be reported to the civil authorities, and that has always been the case. That’s my absolute conviction,” Brown says.

“The competence for these horrific cases ended up with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the situation was gradually brought under control.”

Marcial Maciel abuses

As to the long delay at the Vatican in addressing abuses by the Legionaries of Christ founder, Marcial Maciel, he says that “part of it, I think, would have been the problem of gathering information from victims and overcoming the perception, which was widespread in Rome at the time, that Maciel was a good and holy founder of a religious congregation and that the accusations against him were calumny”.

On whether he is “a Benedict man”, the nuncio says that “for most of my priesthood the pope was John Paul II, who is now a canonised saint. John Paul was incredibly influential in my way of thinking. I found him an incredibly attractive person; his love of the outdoors, his love for sports, his love of travel, his enthusiasm, his doctrinal solidity, his joy was and remains incredibly attractive to me.”

Archbishop Brown worked for Pope Benedict when he was Cardinal Ratzinger for 10 years, “extremely closely between 1994 to when he was elected pope, in 2005. I continued to work for him after 2005, obviously, but not so closely, because he was in the Apostolic Palace and I was in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“I love Pope Benedict. I visit him when I go to Rome. I admire him with all my heart. I’ve been very, very influenced by him. I feel very, very close to him.

“I think maybe, on personality level, I perhaps would be maybe a little more in tune with St John Paul II. Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict is a saintly, scholarly, radiantly holy man with an incredible intellect and a great academic ability.”

He has “met Pope Francis now several times and had the opportunity to have long conversations, just the two of us, and for me it’s an immense honour to be his nuncio, to work for him. I love his openness to the world and the idea of opening the church . . . In some ways there’s a John Paul element in that, and I find that so attractive.

“So for me in the end, for any bishop, you try to model yourself on the person of Jesus. I admire these three popes. I’ve had the joy of working for each of them, and I resonate in different ways with all three of them, but in the end there is only one Lord, and his name is Jesus of Nazareth.”

Brown was “somewhat shocked but not completely surprised” by the resignation of Pope Benedict, in 2013. There were “the now famous visits to the tomb of Pope Celestine V, in one of which he took the pallium, which is a sign of his apostolic authority, and placed it on the tomb of Pope Celestine, who was the only previous pope who resigned.

“I think he realised and believed that in a media age in which we now live a pope needs to be vigorous and present in a public way, in a way which was not necessarily the case before the media age.”

They keep in contact. “He’s quite well. I saw him in May, and we had a nice chat. He was outside in the Vatican garden . . . in good spirits, rested and quite joyful.”


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