Bishop Martin Hayes.

Bishop outlines challenges and opportunities for Church

Just over a year since his ordination as the Bishop of Kilmore, and in what has been a most challenging year for the Church amid the COVID-19 pandemic, BISHOP MARTIN HAYES speaks to EDDIE BUTLER about his vision for the Church of the future, ordinations, the role of laypeople and the challenges ahead...

“It isn’t about worrying ‘are we going to have a priest in the parish?’ You won’t”, warned Bishop Martin Hayes as he outlined the increased role communities are going to have to play in their parishes.

“One of the challenges that I have as a leader in the Church today is to be asking the question ‘who’s going to be proclaiming the Gospel into the future?’ and that responsibility lies with everyone, not just the Bishop and the Priest.”

That was one of a wide range of topics the Bishop of Kilmore, who recently marked one year since his ordination, covered when he sat down with The Anglo-Celt this week.

The low number of men entering the priesthood in Ireland has long been of concern for the Catholic Church here but the reality of the situation was highlighted during the pandemic.

“Covid has pushed the church in particular, five or 10 years into the future. For example, in the early part [of lockdown] some of our priests who are over 70 couldn’t minister. So then we came to realise, how many priests have we available, you know?

"The Church of the future cannot depend - in the near future - upon the availability of priests because they’re not there. So what it’s doing is calling people forth and that’s a challenge, that’s a real challenge,” he remarked.


Bishop Hayes’ comments come as discussions continue as part of Pope Francis’s Synodality programme, which began earlier this month.

“Synodality, now first of all I have to say it’s a word maybe that’s not used,” laughs Bishop Hayes. “Pope Francis is asking us to go on a path of synodality. The explanation of it is that we journey together, we walk together, we listen to each other and we listen to everyone.”

The message? While theologians, bishops, priests and so on all have their part to play, “the Holy Spirit is working through everyone and therefore we need to hear that, hear what they’re saying and reflect upon it.”

The idea of a priest being at the centre of a community has been left behind, with a more community-based approach taking its place.

“Traditionally the priest was seen somewhat on a pedestal,” says Bishop Hayes of the Church of the past. “I would see the priest in a circle, in among the people and listening because I believe fundamentally in each person there is a depth, there is a calling.”

Putting faith into practice

That refreshing viewpoint is echoed in the bishop’s belief that the Church and its followers must return to its foundations. Examples of this, again, were found during the pandemic.

“In communities people emerged to volunteer and to help in very practical ways. Bringing in the shopping for older people, even just visiting at a distance but keeping in contact with each other. While they may not have been able to worship in Church, they were able to put their faith in practice in very practical ways.”

A parish without a resident priest, Aughawillan in Co Leitrim was given as an example of a community working together. People there coordinated the restoration of the local church, which Bishop Hayes marked in recent weeks.

That was one of few visits he has been able to carry out during his first year in the role. A brief lifting of restrictions last year allowed his ordination to go ahead last September, albeit with a greatly reduced attendance.

What is already a difficult transition for many, moving from a role as priest to bishop, was compounded by the pandemic. Having relocated from his native Tipperary to Cavan, lockdowns and travel restrictions limited engagement with parishioners locally and also friends in his last diocese.

In the corner of the meeting room in the Bishop’s House in Cavan town sits a touching gift, which Bishop Hayes received in the past few weeks. The bronze model of the chapel at the Rock of Cashel was a gift from the Priests of Cashel and Emly Diocese.

Some have criticised the Church, and bishops in particular, for weighing into debates or having their say on the topics of the day.

Criticism from certain bishops about restrictions on Communions and Confirmations this summer drew a mixed response from the public - those giving their staunch support to the calls, while others viewed it as the Church getting involved in matters of public health.

Bishop Hayes is considered and careful when asked how he thought the Church handled itself during the pandemic.

“We did okay. Communication of the guidelines with regard to religious services broke down a little bit over the summer there. They were not communicating with people on the ground and that included the parents, schools and children preparing for the sacraments. There was a lack of clarity around that, a lack of detail. We were unsure of how to proceed,” he remarked.

In the end, clarity was given quickly and sacraments and celebrations went ahead. All confirmation ceremonies have taken place, with priests delegated the responsibility for confirming the Diocese’s young people. Communions are continuing.

Climate change

While a fear of a potential backlash may deter some from playing their part in the climate change debates, it doesn’t deter Bishop Hayes who’s playing a local and national role.

A member of the ‘Laudato Si’ working group, his role involves promoting care of the environment following on from Pope Francis’s publication of a document of the same name, meaning ‘Praise be to you’.

The encyclical, published in 2015, criticises consumerism and expresses sorrow at the continuing global warming and climate change.

“The way I see it at the minute is there’s a couple of vortexes on the go. One is the economic system linked to the financial system, sucking up the resources of the earth and we’re going along blindly. So we need to address and we need to go on in sustainable ways because we can’t just keep feeding the economic system,” he articulated.

Bishop Hayes is among those expected to attend the COP26 summit in Glasgow at the end of the month.

While measures needed to tackle global warming are often spoken of on the macro scale, in terms of what countries need to do, he is encouraging local parishes to play their part.

Trees are being planted in Church and school grounds across the Diocese of Kilmore: “Sometimes we can feel overwhelmed but if we’re doing our little bit at home we can help. It might feel small but it’ll make a difference.

“Alongside the pandemic, climate change, they’re the big issues. They’re crises but they’re making us face up to the future and face up to, well, What’s life all about? What are we all about? What contribution can I or you or anyone make?”