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Archbishop Eamon Martin: 'The awful crimes and sins of abuse in the Catholic Church continue to cause me shame ... as Pope Benedict put it, such abuse has obscured the light of the Gospel'

In conversation with Archbishop Eamon Martin

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Core mission: Archbishop Eamon Martin

Core mission: Archbishop Eamon Martin

Core mission: Archbishop Eamon Martin

The Most Reverend Eamon Martin is the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.

Q. Can you tell us about your background?

A. I was born on October 30, 1961 and I grew up in Derry in the Sixties and Seventies and was blessed to be a member of a large family of six boys and six girls and to have a great education at St Patrick's Primary School, Pennyburn and St Columb's College, where I eventually was to return as a teacher and school principal.

Q. How and when did you come to faith?

A. My late parents, John James and Catherine, were my first teachers and best examples in the faith. The love of God, family prayer and involvement in parish were a natural part of my growing up. As an altar server, I grew to love the Mass and got to know the priests of my parish. Although they were all different, both in character and in outlook, they helped me to understand that God calls us as we are, to know, love and serve Him.

In my late teens, I liked to read and study the Gospels and I found myself seeking out opportunities to spend quiet time with God in prayer - either in the oratory at school, or by visiting local churches. That's where I heard Christ's call: "Come follow me!" Faith is everything for me.

Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith, or a gnawing doubt about your faith?

A. Like many people, I've sometimes struggled intellectually with reconciling religion with the mystery of suffering and the reality of evil in the world. It is sad that Christians are divided and, at times, we Christians can even be counter-witnesses to the love and joy of the Gospel. However, that's precisely where faith comes in. At a personal level, I've never doubted God's existence, or God's love for me.

Q. Have you ever been angry with God? And, if so, why?

A. Never angry, although sometimes frustrated that God always seems to be wanting more from me. And then God comforts me by giving me all I need to fulfil His will. As the medieval saying puts it: "To those who do what is in them to do, God does not deny His grace."

Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith? And are you able to live with that criticism?

A. The harshest criticisms and mockery nowadays tends to come in social media - often from trolls, or people who have never met me. I try to have a broad back for criticism. Much of it can be merited and provide an opportunity for reflection, conversion and growth.

I ask myself, "What are these critics really saying, or searching, for?"

When I visited Iraq back in late 2018, I became much more conscious of our Christian brothers and sisters - the modern martyrs worldwide - who have to endure real persecution, oppression and violence for the faith.

Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church, or denomination?

A. The awful crimes and sins of abuse in the Catholic Church continue to cause me shame and I have met many victims and survivors of that abuse who were shockingly violated and left traumatised. As Pope Benedict XVI put it, such abuse has "obscured the light of the Gospel".

Q. Are you afraid to die? Or can you look beyond death?

A. I sometimes feel nervous about what the process and experience of dying might be like, but I'm not afraid of death itself - I see it as the threshold into a new life with God.

Q. Are you afraid of hell?

A. I try to focus every day on God's mercy and I genuinely believe that God does not want anyone to go to hell. God wants me and all of us to turn away from sin in our lives and continually try to do better. I live and hope in Christ and pray that I may never persist in turning away completely from God.

Q. Do you believe in a resurrection? And, if so, what will it be like?

A. I do believe in resurrection and in new life beyond this earthly one. In imagining what it might be like, I find helpful St Paul's words in 1 Corinthians, chapter 15, where he reflects on the seed that is sown which is perishable and decays, but which springs up again in new life and strength. I believe our new life with God in Heaven will be a beautiful one, free from the evil and suffering of this world.

Q. What do you think about people of other denominations and other faiths?

A. Since becoming bishop, I have very much enjoyed sharing the joys and struggles of my faith journey with the leaders and members of other Christian traditions. I have also become much more aware of how people of other faiths are sincerely searching for the truth. I try my best to witness to God's love for us all.

Q. Would you be comfortable in stepping out from your own faith and trying to learn something from other people?

A. I think it is important to be open and to dialogue respectfully with people of all faiths and none, although I don't feel the need to step out of my own faith in order to do so.

Q. Do you think that the Churches here are fulfilling their mission?

A. I think that the Churches nowadays are having to recalibrate their position in society here, both north and south, and perhaps this is helping us get closer to our core mission: to spread the joy of the Gospel in a world that is often preoccupied and somewhat lost. For my own tradition, Pope Francis has been challenging us to put everything into what he calls a "missionary key". He is correct in saying that we need to transform everything we do for the evangelisation of the world, rather than simply for "our own self-preservation".

Q. Why are so many people turning their backs on organised religion?

A. For some, it's because they feel that we have lost some of the joy of being followers of Christ; others perceive organised religion as turned in on itself, stuck in the past and out of touch with the struggles and questions of life. On the other hand, there is a growing minority who feel that the Churches have lost their "edge", because they have been diluting the challenging message of the Gospel too much and they no longer stand for anything worth following.

Q. Has religion helped, or hindered, the people of Northern Ireland?

A. Pastorally, and often quietly behind the scenes, the Churches, via their various outreach projects, have made a huge contribution to community resilience and hope. At times, we might have worked more closely together to present a single voice for peace, reconciliation and solidarity with the poor and marginalised.

Q. What is your favourite film, book and music?

A. The film is Meet Joe Black, starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins (I love the music). I also like The Field, starring Richard Harris and John Hurt. It's a multi-layered classic, which you can watch over and over.

The book is the Bible (of course) and Acts of the Apostles to be specific (you never have it finished). The music is Chopin's nocturnes (so soothing after a long day).

Q. Where do you feel closest to God?

A. In any of our churches, before the tabernacle, or at the consecration during Mass.

Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A. "Be strong, let your heart take courage, all who hope in the Lord" (Psalm 31:24). This is the verse I chose for my ordination card on June 28, 1987.

Q. Finally, have you any major regrets?

A. Time wasted worrying about things that never happen.

Belfast Telegraph