TERRY PRONE: Archbishop tried to prove a point unamenable to be proven

Why on earth would a sensible man like Diarmuid Martin try to convince anybody that there isn't a shortage, asks Terry Prone. 

Someone needs to come up with a name for a syndrome that makes some people in a media crisis repeat a statement that not only won’t get them out of the bother they’re in, but will undoubtedly make their bother more bothersome

In several decades of communications consulting, I’ve seen countless managers do it; or have to be forcibly prevented from doing it. Their world is collapsing all around them, but they get furious only about one aspect of the collapse, which they see as a wilful or pig-ignorant misunderstanding of a key point.

The misunderstanding, if wilful, they attribute to lawyers, politicians or the media. The classic example, which one trusts will serve as a case study in communications studies programmes in all relevant third level institutions,  relates to CervicalCheck.

Experts within health will still, if you poke them, explain that the CervicalCheck scan is not a diagnostic device. They’ve been saying it for months. It’s never landed. They keep saying it, as if it provided some kind of personal comfort, which it may, in a controversy that has done enormous damage to the reputation and career prospects of individuals who were, up to this point, seen as irreproachable in their professionalism.

But it’s not changing how the history of this issue will be written, or the current public and media perceptions around it.

Same with the Archbishop of Dublin. At the Church of St Therese in Mount Merrion on Saturday evening, Diarmuid Martin, in his apology to the congregation for a missing mass, he reiterated his statement that:

The situation was not due to the fact of a shortage of priests. A priest had been designated. My concern was that such a situation that was unplanned should have been escalated into something else in the national media

Now, if the Archbishop had a tough communications expert in his circle, willing to say “Your Grace, get a grip,” the hours before he uttered this from the altar on Saturday would have been the ideal time to raise a few queries about the communications strategy involved.

The first query was about the naming of the Jesuit who got his dates wrong. Naming and shaming may seem a little old fashioned, but the archbishop, undeterred, named the man who hadn’t turned up, before hurling him under a passing bus; it was all his fault. Roster error; inattention to detail rather than a shortage of priests.

But hang on a second, the communications consultant would have said. The guy who’s currently under the bus wheels is a Jesuit, right? A member of a congregation, rather than a diocesan priest, correct? Well, why are you relying on the Jesuits to say mass in the archdiocese of Dublin? Wouldn’t be anything to do with a shortage of diocesan priests, perhaps? And aren’t the Jesuits running out of priests, too?

Whether the Archbishop wants to admit it or not, his diocese, in common with dioceses in many countries of the world, has a shortage of priests. Fact. Even if you stack the numbers up, setting age to one side, it’s still a shortage.

If you put age into the equation, you have men in their late seventies and eighties doing their best to meet current need, with no line of succession coming up behind them. So why on earth would a sensible man like Diarmuid Martin try to convince anybody that there isn’t a shortage? He may want to prove that (except when he’s forced to rely on a Jesuit) this is an issue that can be managed. Of course it can.

Next step? Reverse clerical colonialism, where priests are brought over from Peru and India to serve Irish needs.

Archbishop tried to prove a point unamenable to be proven

The point he was trying to prove, in short, is unamenable to being proven. But what is of much more importance is that banging on about this point ignores the issue that made Josepha Madigan much more a national figure than delivery on her ministerial portfolio ever could have done.

The emotive issue had a number of threads to it, as a tough communications consultant would have told the Archbishop.

The first was his portrayal of the thwarted congregation being “hurt” by what Josepha had done when the named Jesuit had failed to turn up. Now, here is where the truth needed to be told in blunt terms.

As in: “Your Grace. Come ON. A couple of gospel-greedy folk rang to give out about a Minister of the Gospel leading prayers and said they were upset. Now, a phone call from the priest or better still from yourself would set those complainers up for life and take maybe 10 minutes. But sending out a statement defending those ‘hurt’ parishioners against Josepha is going to look silly.”

Had I been advising his eminence, I’d have pointed out that my own sister is a minister of the gospel in her parish, and, in the situation where a priest failed to turn up, would be quite likely to lead the congregation in prayers to send them off having had some kind of communication with God.

No offence to my sister, but if she did that, she wouldn’t appear in media directly afterwards, as Josepha Madigan did. So the mutterings (not attributable to the archbishop, let us hasten to clarify) about Minister Madigan being an attention-seeker are a bit off. Most politicians are attention-seekers.

They have to be. It’s part of their job. But if you believe Josepha Madigan foresaw the publicity she would get out of leading prayers in her parish church and did it with malice aforethought, you’re out by the side of it.

Madigan could not have anticipated that the Archbishop of Dublin would hurl fuel on her little fire and turn it into a conflagration. She could not have anticipated this because, since he took office, the archbishop has rarely put a foot wrong, in media terms.

So it was always going to generate headlines if he issued an intemperate and personal statement on foot of one of the ministers of the gospel leading the prayers of a congregation. Bearing in mind that members of that congregation had the freedom of their feet and could have left the church at any time.

There’s a think-it-through issue, here. Knowing Madigan’s form when it comes to being an avowed Catholic while not having her mind made up for her by the hierarchy, Diarmuid Martin could not have believed for a moment, if he had thought it through, that she was going to doff her russet forelock and accept his criticisms.

Instead, she demonstrated that essential trait of a 21st century politician — informed opportunism — and widened the issue into celibacy and the ordination of women.

Perhaps the saddest part of the Archbishop’s remarks on Saturday was him stressing that Christian charity must inform discussions within the Church. And so say all of us. The sad bit is him saying it while not apologising for or even making reference to his earlier description of Josepha Madigan’s call for women to be ordained as “bizarre”.

Why on earth would a sensible man like Diarmuid Martin try to convince anybody that there isn’t a shortage?

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