Archbishop Eamon Martin talks to William Scholes of the Irish News about the importance of family and Christmas, his regret at the introduction of abortion legislation in the Republic and his fears about Brexit’s polarising effect
THIS Christmas will feel different for Eamon Martin, the Archbishop of Armagh, William Scholes writes.
He will still travel to Derry to spend Christmas Day and what he hopes will be a couple of days off with family and close friends, but the journey home will, he says, be tinged with sadness.
Dr Martin’s mother Catherine died in March, so this will be the first Christmas that he and his siblings – five brothers and six sisters – have marked since her loss.
The profound change within his own family circle has caused Dr Martin to reflect not only on his own feelings but also those of others.
“I know that my mother lived a long, a good life, but I am very conscious there are people this Christmas who have had bereavements or are going into Christmas with illnesses,” he says.
The importance of family is a thread throughout our conversation.
Family, he says, has a particular resonance every Christmas; but 2018 was also the year in which Dublin hosted the World Meeting of Families, and Ireland voted to remove the Eighth Amendment from the Republic’s constitution, thus ushering in a liberal abortion regime that challenges, among other things, the Catholic Church’s idea of ‘family’.
Northern Ireland’s political ‘family’ remains in deadlock at Stormont, while Brexit is pulling at complex and interconnected family ties within the European Union, Ireland and the United Kingdom.
During a visit to Iraq this month his own recent bereavement gave him an even deeper understanding of the religious persecution towards Christian families in the region who have suffered so much.
“My mother died this year, and therefore visiting a graveyard has taken on a new significance for me,” he said.
“But to walk into the graveyard in Batnaya and see the way hatred desecrated that sacred space, with crosses and gravestones smashed to pieces…
“When you strike at a family grave, you strike at the heart of a family.
“To see the gravestones smashed and the slogans of hatred daubed around that place, it really made me wonder about the length of the journey that needs to be taken towards reconciliation.”
Unsurprisingly, talk of reconciliation leads to a comparison with Northern Ireland.
“We know how difficult that is, even 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, to get realistic reconciliation and an understanding and appreciation of each other as being people with legitimate aspirations, but with differences,” he says.
“I can only imagine the mammoth task that lies ahead for people in Iraq.”
Thinking about the opportunities for reconciliation afforded by the ‘decade of centenaries’ has led to joint witness and cooperation between Dr Martin and his Church of Ireland counterpart in Armagh, Dr Richard Clarke.
“The decade of centenaries had the potential to drive people apart, so Archbishop Richard and I agreed that we would try to model friendship and reconciliation for our people,” says Dr Martin.
“We have a rule of thumb that where we can do things together that would be better than doing them apart, we will do them together.”
This has included the two archbishops leading groups of young people from Protestant and Catholic backgrounds to First World War battlefields and in November Dr Martin was “humbled and very honoured” to be asked to preach at the centenary commemoration of the Armistice in St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast.
The two men hope that if they are able to break new ground, then their respective congregations will also feel confident to talk to each other.
“We are not naïve. There are deep hurts here. There are families who experienced the very worst of sectarian hatred, bile and destruction during the Troubles. It takes generations to overcome that,” says Dr Martin.
Those fissures in northern society remain. A depressing side-effect of the debate surrounding Brexit is that they have, in many cases, deepened.
Difference has been compounded, says Dr Martin, who fears that the Brexit process has “helped polarise people again into camps, which is something that particularly here in Northern Ireland we have to beware of”.
There has, he says, been an “increase in ‘them and us’ talk, the increase in sectarianism, talk about borders and barriers rather than about bridges and what we have in common”.
“It’s unfortunate that we’ve managed to translate even the Brexit debate into our normal orange and green, nationalist and republican versus unionist and loyalist terms. We are good at that, sadly.”
Instead, we should “appeal to the best of what we have achieved in the 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement”, he says.
“What we have achieved is fragile – it needs a ‘handle with care’ sign,” says Dr Martin.
“My hopes are that we will see sense, and not allow ourselves to be pushed into corners again and pushed into accentuating our differences.
“We need to realise that while we might be leaving the European Union we aren’t leaving Europe.
“I think this narrowing of our expectations and our horizons is so counter-cultural to globalisation, diversity and plurality.”
He is reminded of a primary school in Dungannon where 80 per cent of the children have backgrounds outside Ireland, and are “clearly integrated and understanding difference”.
“These are young people who will grow up in an Ireland where the disputes of the past will be rather meaningless to them,” he says.
“It will be a pity if we simply hand on our prejudices and our differences to them.”
If increasing diversity has been one aspect of change in Ireland in recent years, another has been the drift away from Church and towards secularism.
Christmas has been losing its meaning and Christian significance, agrees Dr Martin.
“There are people in Ireland, north and south, who go through Christmas without any reference to Christ or to faith or to religion,” he says.
“I still feel there is a Christmas which reaches deep down within people, to their faith background.
“Even if they themselves are not personally practising their faith in the way they might have done in the past, or the way their parents or grandparents did, there is still something about the season of Christmas which brings out the best in people.
“By that I mean virtues like charity, compassion, hope, solidarity with those who are less fortunate – you only have to look at the response of people to food banks, to the homeless.
“Then you’ve got the family side of Christmas, which is very much part of our faith understanding of the season, which means a lot to people – even if they themselves have begun to drift away from the practice of their faith – will still make an extra effort for family, for home, for relations, for contacting people who live alone, for the elderly, for people who are ill or in hospital, or people who have suffered bereavement.”
In just a few days we will enter a new year, “with all the uncertainties that will bring”, so the Christmas season’s fundamental message that “God is with us” is important, he says.
While in Iraq, Dr Martin experienced first-hand how the Christians cannot openly celebrate Christmas.
“However, when you to go inside their compounds, you see the Christmas tree and the crib,” he says.
“These are people who have been through hell and terrible trauma.
“But for them, the message of the incarnation – Immanuel, God with us – remains central to all that they are doing.
“It was lovely to see the young people and the children, who have clearly gone through such a horrendous experience, sing their Christmas carols and experience the joy and hope and happiness that this season brings.”
Religious freedom has “fallen down the human rights pecking order”.
Nor are Christians the only minority under threat; Yazidi Muslims, for example, also face persecution in Iraq: “People are murdered because of who they are.”
The debate around the repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Republic’s Constitution also used the vocabulary of rights.
Referring to how some who campaigned for a more liberal abortion regime said they had “won” the referendum, Dr Martin said he was deeply saddened at “the idea that there’s a winner and a loser when the fundamental right to life is being downgraded below the right to choice“.
The subsequent legislative process had been flawed. “It was conducted ‘off-stage’, and there was a sense of gloating,” he said.
He would have liked pro-life TDs to have taken a more prominent role in the debate, which “became narrow and hostile”.
The Church is concerned about protection for health professionals who have conscientious objections to being involved in abortion services, said Dr Martin.
“In the eyes of our Catholic Church, we would see the introduction of abortion as the introduction of an unjust law, and a law which doesn’t bind anyone,” he said.
“Therefore, we would see it as perfectly legitimate for somebody who in conscience feels this law is unjust to resist it and oppose it.
“Very many GPs, doctors, nurses, midwives, pharmacists and many others will want to distance themselves as much as possible from the direct and intentional taking of the life of any person, of any unborn innocent child.”
Dr Martin said the implication of remarks by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was that an “unborn child is only a baby and a human life if it is a wanted child; if it’s not wanted, it loses its right to life”.
“That to me is a huge moral mistake – and one that the country will live to regret,” said Dr Martin.
Pope Francis visited Ireland in the wake of the referendum, though Dr Martin resists referring to ‘the Pope’s visit’: “For us, we were hosting the World Meeting of Families at which the Pope was visiting.”
He was struck by the wide range of emotions that accompanied Pope Francis – “from the joy as his eyes lit up at Riverdance in Croke Park, to his furrowed brow as he listened to the stories of abuse survivors” – and about the visit’s international reach.
“People from every continent heard Pope Francis speak about the importance of family, and how families are the glue of society,” said Dr Martin.
“It is true – he emphasised the importance of family life, which Christmas reminds us about.
“Family is the place where love is experienced and where love grows. He struck a chord.”
And so the conversation has gone full-circle, and returned to the family.
As we finish, Dr Martin says: “I wish all of your readers every happiness and blessing in their families and in their homes; and to those who are struggling for whatever reason, I wish them some contentment and a break from tension over the Christmas season, and every happiness in 2019.”