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Bishop of Galway: ‘Church must be open to all’

The Catholic Church should no longer be viewed as a “holy huddle”, and remain open to all who seek it.

Bishop Michael Duignan, who has led the Diocese of Clonfert since 2019 and became Bishop of Galway, Kilmacduagh and Kilfenora last year, says the church must have an open-door policy, for those who visit every day and for those who “dip in” even once a year.

“One of the greatest gifts that Pope Francis has given to the Church is the sense that there’s an open door; that we’re not a holy huddle but people trying to live life with God by our side, and trying to do our best through the ups and downs of life,” says Bishop Duignan.

“If that means that they come once or twice a year, they are welcome. We cannot exclude people. There are so many varieties of people out there and if you open up to them, you actually gain something yourself from them.

“I always say that some of my favourite people to talk to are non-believers. We have great chats and I’m enriched by their conversations with me . . . I don’t know if they’re enriched by their conversations with me,” he laughs.

Faith, says Bishop Duignan, should enrich life and never be an imposition and those who choose to believe often have “a more profound engagement with their faith”.

“I don’t expect anybody else to be forced to believe anything. I feel that we as a church community need to be able to explain why we believe in this, and why it is important to us and if people want to come and be part of that, there should be an invitation there. It should always be by invitation, not by imposition.

“Some people see faith as a duty that drags us down, or something that means you can’t have fun at all. For me, that’s not faith. I think it makes life better and gives an opportunity to live life with a deeper meaning,” he says.

As society in Ireland becomes more secular, Catholics must find a place for that change, says Bishop Duignan, but so too should there be a place for those of faith.

“I think we have to find a way where both voices respect each other, and that the Church respects the secular world view. But I would like to hope that those of a secular viewpoint would also have a place for the faith perspective in life, not just for Christian faith or Catholic faith, but for all faiths,” he says.

The conversation around Catholic patronage in primary school education has been ongoing for years and the Bishop stresses that making room for a different world view is critical, but it will be parents who lead the way.

“There is a large grouping that has a secular worldview and I think over time, the composition of schools will have to realign to that reality.

“There will have to be more diversity to cater for the choices of parents because if they don’t want what Catholic education has to offer, the need a choice and the problem is, at times, that there is no choice,” says Bishop Duignan.

“I think a caricature of Catholic schools is sometimes created, and they’re seen as sort of pumping religion into people but I believe Catholic schools are about opening your perspective on the world and going on an adventure of faith and reason, where science and religion are not mutually exclusive,” he adds.

The Church is in a transitional phase, says Bishop Duignan, and in the aftermath of child abuse scandals.

“Terrible things have happened and things that should never have happened, and were wrong. I don’t think we should or can forget the wrongs of the past.

“The Church is challenged to hold up its message in a way that is credible, so that people will see it as something that they want for themselves. We have to go forward if we feel what we believe in makes a difference to people’s lives, and I think it does,” he says.

In the three years since Bishop Duignan was appointed Bishop, the world has experienced a life-changing pandemic with Covid-19, and the outbreak of war in Europe with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Covid moved the Church online unlike ever before, and the streaming of services has become the norm where it was once a rarity – a positive and a negative all at once, as the Bishop explains.

“As a faith community, we’re a live event and it’s better live than on the telly. You get the most out of it when you’re here, with the community,” he says, adding that the positive outcome is that those who otherwise would be unable to attend can now do so from home.

The Church has had a significant role to play in the response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis, particularly so in Loughrea, where Bishop Duignan is based and where a significant amount of accommodation has been provided for those fleeing the war.

“I was involved in the convent project in Loughrea and the people there have done massive work, doing their best to look after others who have come from very difficult circumstances.

“In our faith communities, we might need to do more of that and to look at the needs of people and ask what we can do,” he says.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune:

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