On Sunday February 11, Bishop Brendan Kelly will be officially installed as the new Bishop of Galway, replacing Bishop Martin Drennan who retired in 2016. For the past 10 years, Bishop Kelly has been at the helm of the Diocese of Achonry, but previously spent many years working in Galway and its environs so his succession to the bishopric is something of a homecoming.
Recently he came to his alma mater, St Mary’s College, to meet local priests and, while there, sat down with me to chat about his life, his faith, and his hopes as he assumes his new role.
“I was a boarder here from 1959 to 1964,” he recalls when I ask him about his time at St Mary’s. “I enjoyed my years here though it was austere. The one thing I missed most was the fire; there was no place you could get cosy! The teachers were very good, particularly Fr Martin Coen who was a wonderful teacher of history – he also wrote The Wardenship of Galway and wrote a column for The Connacht Tribune.”
Bishop Brendan grew up in Craughwell, the second of nine children. Both his parents were teachers and devout Catholics who attended daily Mass. It was in his teens that Brendan first felt his religious vocation. “I began to consider priesthood in my Leaving Cert year,” he tells me. “I remember Bishop Browne giving us a talk and saying ‘I need you as priests in my dioceses’. I heard that in a very personal way. I started to think then that priesthood might be a possibility; before that I’d always wanted to be a teacher. So after the Leaving Cert I went to Maynooth.”
Ordained as a priest in 1971, Bishop Brendan’s first appointment was to the parish of Kinvara as a curate before being appointed to the teaching staff of Coláiste Éinde in Salthill in 1972, where he remained until 1980 when he was transferred to Our Lady’s College, Gort, becoming president in 1986. He later served as parish priest in both Lisdoonvarna and Spiddal before becoming Bishop of Achonry in 2007.
“The big difference between being a priest and a bishop is that you’re not as much at the coalface,” he observes. “You’re more involved in occasions such as confirmations and formal events. These are important of course but you rarely get to do ordinary things like funerals, weddings, and baptisms. I used to enjoy those very much; I was never a scholar or academic, I was always a people person. That’s what attracted me to the priesthood from the beginning; that I’d spend my life working with people and not in an office. The great gift of being a priest is that you are very much with the people and all the ups and downs of their lives.”
“I had no ambition to be a bishop,” he admits candidly, "but when I was asked I had to say yes. You say to yourself ‘this is the call of God’. I believe passionately in obedience, not in the narrow sense of following orders but in the sense of listening to what you are being asked to do. Faith is about trusting that God is going to help you. I have been asked to come to Galway at a time when all of my contemporaries are retired, and my energies are not what they used to be, but there is a very good team of both lay people and priests here to help me, so I feel able to take this role on.”
Bishop Brendan outlines his hopes for his new posting; “Firstly, I have to refamiliarise myself with the diocese because I have been 10 years away and lost my contact with the place; I never expected to be back here. I have the same hopes I would have had in Achonry and they would all be around the fundamental importance of faith and evangelisation. We have to announce the Gospel anew; all of us are called to recognise why we are in this ourselves and to share that with others. There are now fewer priests than there used to be and we are dependent on ordinary people to pass on the message.
"A bishop is primarily a shepherd; he leads, listens, minds, and teaches. I always loved teaching but you have to listen to people first to find out where they are at, and that is an area where the Church has to learn a lot, to really listen to people and then to share our faith with them, very simply to say why I do what I do, why I go to Mass, why I believe the gospel is worthwhile and how it can help us to be content in life and to transform us. I would also highlight the value of prayer. Prayer is simply a matter of being in conversation with God, of listening to God and pouring out our own hearts. God is our Father and he wants us to maintain a relationship and talk to Him; that’s what prayer is.”
Bishop Brendan comes across as warm, down to earth, and modest, with a strong sense of faith and commitment. One element of his ministry that has meant a great deal to him is his work with those who are intellectually disabled.
“Bishop Casey first asked me to get involved in bringing the sacraments to people who were mentally disabled and that was one of the most transforming things of my entire life,” he recalls. “I still derive great joy from working with disabled people. I found from working with disabled people they weren’t interested in status or power or control but they had an incredible need to be loved and they wanted to love, and their great gift was in that whole area of affection and bringing love out of you, that sacrificing love. They make us better people and humanise us, even when it is not easy caring for them.”
One early challenge Bishop Kelly faces is the upcoming referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment and he restates the Church position on the issue; “The right to life is the most fundamental right so I’m very much in favour of maintaining the status quo. What makes me passionate about it is that it seems to be taken for granted that if a child in the womb is found to be severely disabled or liable to die soon after birth it would be better if it were not born. Yet I have met parents who were consoled by the fact that they had their child for even a few hours or days; they were able to know and name their child and see it as theirs and remember it at family gatherings. The life of the mother is also precious and Church teaching is very clear; what the church says is wrong is direct intervention with the intention of killing the baby, but if the mother needs to be treated for a condition so that her life needs to be preserved and a consequence of that is that the child dies then that’s allowed. I’d hate us to become casual about any life.”
As our interview concludes, Bishop Kelly acknowledges the Church’s influence and standing in society has diminished during his lifetime yet he still sees reasons to be hopeful about its role. “I meet a lot of people who speak to me in a very personal way, which is one of the joys of priesthood. There is hardly a day in my life when I don’t give thanks for some encounter that I have had; somebody has said something to me or opened their heart to me and that has given me life. Within the church sometimes we fail to count the number of people in parishes who give of their time and expertise; ordinary people. I don’t like the phrase lay people, we are all people in the church, and that’s what we have to become, it’s what we are part of and what we profess, we’re all together in this and that is one of the great things that is happening, there is a coming together between priests and people as the church gets smaller.”