“I THINK the pandemic has accelerated many of the changes that we saw coming in society and in the Church, and that’s been challenging,” says Catholic Bishop of Cork and Ross Fintan Gavin.
“But there’s been a blessing in the sense that it has allowed certain things to happen that we said would never have happened.
“It has allowed for flexibility. It has helped us to see what’s really important. So while it’s been very difficult, it’s also been an opportunity to reassess as we go forward.”
The bishop is a young-looking 56, with a serious, gentle approach, and there’s no disguising his soft Dublin accent.
He says ongoing uncertainties about Covid and its variants are an undeniable strain.
“Attendances are down, there’s no doubt, but we’re not even in a position where we can actually encourage people to come back. I’m very slow to say anything, except ‘you’re welcome’, but I’m not going to put any pressure on you to be there if you don’t feel safe,” says Bishop Gavin.
“We’ve lost out on the patterns in younger families, children coming to Mass, being part of it, altar service, and my hope had been that we would begin to rebuild those things this year, but we haven’t been able to do that.”
There is light, he says, but it’s hard, with people and priests weary.
“So, yes, it has accelerated changes, but it also has helped us to reassess what kind of Church we want to build. In terms of people’s lives, I think it’s the same — what’s really important, what can we let go of?”
Finances have been badly affected by the pandemic. “It has been another challenge, and we tried to address that last year through looking at how we sustain our parishes financially into the future and we did a number of things.
“We’ve worked towards online payments, direct debits, which is the way the rest of the world does its subscriptions now.”
With vocations down, he believes the Catholic Church of the future will be very different.
“We have one man who will be ordained a priest this year. We’ve no-one in formation.” He is due to meet four men about vocations, and there will be a process of interviews with them.
“The numbers are going to be much smaller. The Church of the future will be priests and people together with co-responsibility. The days of the priest doing everything [are over] and, OK, you could say that’s challenging, but also there’s a positive in that.”
He says Cork and Ross is unusual, in that it has 15 priests younger than him. Geographically, it is the largest diocese in the country, and he says he sees a huge difference in West Cork, with Ross once its own diocese — something he says is still evident.
Moving to Cork was “a huge culture change”, the bishop admits. “Dublin’s a big city, so Cork is much smaller, people are very friendly. It’s a nice place to be, a lovely city, but it wasn’t in my trajectory. I was very happily doing a busy job in Dublin. I had a lot of things going on.
“It came totally out of the blue. I had about six or seven months pre-pandemic. We were very busy and, since that, we’ve been managing a pandemic.”
Would it be fair to say a recent reorganisation of some parishes has shaken things up?
“We’re beginning to plan for the future and realising that, with a diminishing number of priests, we have to look at other models of how we work together that we can provide pastoral care.
“One of the things we’re piloting is what we’re calling families of parishes, where parishes work together, share their gifts, talents, resources, and share their priests together, so we have a number of those working.”
He says he had four-and-a-half days with his priests in Killarney before the pandemic, getting to know each other and learning to work together. He believes this co-operation will allow them to better promote the mission of the Church, something he feels is more important than ever in today’s secular world.
“Sometimes, because of the mistakes in the past and the different things that were done, it really does not allow the mission to be seen. People see all the other things that one associates with the Church.”
I ask if his management style is a reaction to the older, more authoritarian Church.
When any bishop is appointed, he replies, Pope Francis writes a papal mandate, a personal letter to the man he’s appointing.
“The last couple of lines of mine were, ‘I want you to work together in unity with the people of the diocese towards a period of renewal’.
“That began in 2019. Then, obviously, the pandemic hit, slowing it down, and so we’re just beginning that again.”
When asked if the church was missing a trick by denying a leading pastoral role to 51% of its congregation, Bishop Gavin says that is not a question for him.
“There are huge possibilities for women, women are a huge part of the Church,” he says.
“We do need to give them a greater role in terms of leadership as well. The question of ordination is another question; that’s not something that I have control over.”
Would he favour it?
“I think there’s all kinds of theological questions that would have to be addressed.”
With homelessness on the rise again, is there more the Church and its people could do for the homeless?
“I think we can always be doing more. I think a lot of the Church, individual parishes particularly, are doing a lot already. There’s always more we can do.
“I would obviously have a strong connection with the Vincent de Paul, but also with Caitríona Twomey in Penny Dinners.
“We’re not really addressing the systemic problems of poverty, and that goes back to education, and changing structures in terms of how we support people.”
He points out that the people who have suffered most in the pandemic are the poor, and says that, while the work of organisations like Penny Dinners and the Vincent de Paul is vital, we need to look at the fundamentals, adding that there are a lot of empty buildings around Cork, as well.
Finally, is there a message he would like to give for Christmas?
“The message that we celebrate at Christmas changed history, that Christ came into the world as a simple child in a manger, that God chose to come into the poorest possible setting.
“And so as a solidarity with poorness, with suffering, we think of the night time, the darkness that Christ came into; in an analogous way Christ is with us in the darkness of this time.
“And if we ever needed hope, and the hope that the Christ child, the Christmas message offers, it’s now after two years of a pandemic.”
He says that Christmas can crystallise the fractures in our families and communities, and he believes that the message of hope that Christmas offers tells us to begin again, and not to give up.
“Pope Francis wrote recently about coming out of the pandemic, building a world that has real fraternity among all people, equality that’s built on those kind of values that Christ brings to us.
“That’d be my hope, that we can build a world together and that we can turn a very nasty pandemic into something for rebuilding a world that is more full of justice, equality, and inclusion.”