The Diocese of Cork and Ross is preparing for its biggest change in decades, as the long-serving and much-loved Bishop John Buckley prepares to retire in the coming months.
The new Bishop-elect of Cork and Ross, Dubliner Fintan Gavin, told the congregation in the North Cathedral that news of his new role came completely out of the blue a fortnight ago, and that he is excited about the challenge ahead.
“It is difficult to express in words, the shock and surprise I felt,” he said. “I was very happily serving the Church as an ordinary priest… and as a northside Dubliner I would never have expected such trust to be placed in me by Pope Francis. It seems very daunting at this stage and I am very aware of my own human limitations but I have always answered God’s call.”
The Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo was in the city yesterday to make the announcement about the long-awaited successor. The papal flag fluttered alongside the Cork flag outside the North Cathedral and a crowd of several hundred was present for the Mass and announcement.
Bishop Buckley reached the age at which serving diocesan bishops are required to submit their resignation to the Pope in 2014, but has continued to serve the Diocese of Cork and Ross until a replacement was found.
Speaking after Mass, Archbishop Okolo thanked the people of Cork for their patience.
“Today is a very special day in the life of the local church, and for the diocese,” he said. “Bishop John has been waiting for a successor, as have the people of Cork. The people of Cork are very good, they are demanding because they want the best and that is good! So we had to look for the best person for them.”
Bishop-elect Gavin is a native of Dublin, from the Saint Vincent de Paul Parish, Marino.
He played hurling and football with Saint Vincent’s GAA Club and prior to becoming a priest, he had begun training as a residential social worker. He has been deeply involved in street ministry and working with young people.
The 53-year-old told the gathered faithful that this was his second time concelebrating Mass in the cathedral; his first time was during a visit to the Cork International Choral Festival with a young choir from Dublin.
He said he was fully aware of the challenges facing the Church and was determined to meet the head-on.
“I am conscious of those who have felt let down by the Church and are just ‘hanging in there’,” he said during the Mass. “I encourage you not to give up.”
Afterwards, he added: “It is a changing Ireland. The gospel is the same, we just have to find new ways of bringing that gospel and bringing energy and enthusiasm.
“I see more role primarily as pastoral, the most important thing is the parishes, the priests and the people of the diocese.”
At the end of his remarks he invited local children to join him at the baptismal font, where they and Bishop Buckley blessed each other with Holy Water.
As the mass ended, the bishop-elect was surrounded by well-wishers welcoming him to the diocese. His ordination will now take place some time within the next four months.
The well-wishers greeting Bishop-elect Gavin also crowded around Bishop Buckley, with heartfelt thanks given for his decades of devotion to the diocese. He served first as auxillary bishop and then as bishop of Cork and Ross since 1997.
During the prayers of the faithful, the congregation gave thanks for his years of service and prayed for a happy and healthy retirement for the 79-year-old.
Cork people needn’t worry about him disappearing any time soon. Speaking to The Echo after Mass, Bishop Buckley said although he was looking forward to a less hectic schedule, he still has much to contribute to the diocese.
“My plan for the future is to help Bishop Fintan, to support and advise is different ways,” he said. “And priests in parishes are operating under considerable constraints so I would like to help out in parishes.”
Speaking of his years as a bishop, he acknowledged that he had overseen a time of great change in the Church’s role in public life, with the numbers of priests in the diocese halved since he became a priest in 1965.
But Bishop Buckley said he believes faith was an important part of Cork life: “You see the huge numbers here at Christmas and for Ash Wednesday. They might not be here every week but deep down they have the gift of faith.”
He said that the day he became bishop was one of the most important of his life. Asked about the most memorable moments of his tenure, he said the funeral of Jack Lynch in 1999 left a particularly deep impression.
“The way people turned out to celebrate his life and the popularity of the man,” he said. “You saw it today when I mentioned his name and there was a spontaneous outburst of applause. The love for Jack Lynch and the way his name lives on would certainly be a highlight.”
As Bishop Buckley prepares to take some well-earned rest, tributes have poured in from around the county and beyond. Tánaiste Simon Coveney said he “has served with pride and ability for the last two decades”.
“Almost a quarter of a million people across 68 parishes will be wishing him well as he moves on,” he added.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said Bishop Buckley had given a “given a lifetime of service to the people of Cork and Ross”.
“He was a proud pastoral leader rooted in the community,” Mr Martin said. “He was an extremely compassionate man and advocate for people who had become disenfranchised.”
Cork City Lord Mayor Mick Finn also thanked the Bishop for his service to Cork, describing him as “a humble man who fulfilled a major role for his church in Cork, often at very difficult times”.
The politicians also welcomed Bishop-elect Gavin and wished him well in his new role. Tributes were also paid by his fellow religious, including the Papal Nuncio.
“He has a human touch,” Archbishop Okolo said. “We worked closely together and I really appreciate him as a person and as a pastor.”
Dr Paul Colton, Church of Ireland Bishop of Cork also wished his “good friend Bishop John Buckley every joy, contentment and blessing’.
“I have seen at first hand, in our work alongside one another over the past 20 years, his untiring work,” he said. “I have found it deeply enriching to work and pray with him, and to have his friendship.”
He also welcomed Bishop-elect Gavin who, like Dr Colton, is a specialist in Canon Law.
“The Bishop-elect was ordained to the diaconate shortly after I arrived to serve in a Church of Ireland parish in Dublin and, already in the 1990s, our paths crossed,” Dr Colton said. “Then and since we have worked together in a number of pastoral contexts.”
Archbishop Eamon Martin and other bishops also praised Bishop Buckley and welcomed news of Bishop-elect Gavin’s appointment.
And of course no exchange between a Corkonian and a Dubliner would be complete without reference to the real capital.
Bishop Buckley said it was a “a great honour for a Dubliner to be promoted to the real capital of Cork” and added that following the contributions of the likes of Jack Lynch and Michael Collins at a national level, it was about time to have a Dublin man contribute to Cork.
Bishop-elect Gavin took it in his stride: “He has already spoken to me about road bowling, so that will be part of the initiation!”