The incoming bishop of Waterford-Lismore, who is due to be installed at a special Mass this Sunday, has admitted that the lack of new vocations across the country is “a worry” for every bishop.
Clare native Fr Alphonsus Cullinan will formally replace Bishop William Lee, who retired last year because of declining health, in the Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity in Waterford city at Mass on Sunday.
Among the attendance in what’s expected to be a packed cathedral will be 26 bishops including the Archbishop of Cashel and Emly Dr Kieran O’Reilly and the primate of All-Ireland Dr Eamon Martin; along with priests of the diocese of Waterford and Lismore, whch includes a large swathe of south Tipperary.
Also there will be representatives of other Christian churches in the Waterford area as well as local politicians and representatives of President Michael D. Higgins and taoiseach Enda Kenny.
The new bishop will also be joined by his five brothers and four sisters and said the family will together sing the psalm during the Mass.
He himself is a former member of the Bunratty Castle Entertainers and taught for six years at Castleconnell in Limerick and two years in Spain before entering St Patrick’s College in Maynooth and being ordained a priest in 1994.
More recently he has been chaplain at the regional hospital in Limerick, chaplain of Limerick Institute of Technology from 2004 and 2011 and parish priest of Rathkeale in Co Limerick until now.
At a briefing for members of the media in Waterford, the incoming bishop said it will be a big change for him to switch from a parish of 4,000 people to an entire diocese with a population of 155,000.
“This is new territory for me,” he said. “It’s going to mean a lot more work.”
He cited as one of his heroes the late Donal Walsh from Kerry, the teenager who captured the nation’s hearts before his death from cancer in 2013 and who often spoke of his strong faith.
“Dónal would say, forget about the difficulties, get out there and do it.”
He is looking forward, as bishop, to meeting with as many local people as possible, including young people, as well as consulting with all of the priests of the diocese regarding the future of Waterford and Lismore and the future of the church.
“I’m going to try my best. The welcome has been really beautiful, everyone has been so positive and so welcoming, right across the board.”
His first priority is to “pray” and “to be a real, committed Christian,” he said. “I do believe this is God’s will for me. When the [papal] nuncio asked me, I said ‘yes’ because that’s the way God’s call works.”
The church has to go forward as a community, the incoming bishop said, “working together and praying together and listening together. I hope to have a cup of tea in every priest’s house. That listening is very important.”
Asked if the decline in the number of serving priests and the decline in new vocations to the priesthood is a concern, he replied: “Of course. That’s a worry for every bishop. Right across the country it’s true we’re in that time of the church in Ireland now where vocations are down.”
He pointed out, however, that there have been other times in the church’s history when vocations have gone “up and down” and said that, in other parts of the world, vocations are burgeoning and attendances are growing.
“It’s always a struggle for the church, it’s never plain sailing. Right now one of the struggles in Ireland is looking for vocations. But I believe the Lord is still calling and people are still [being called]. Maybe they just can’t hear right now, the call of the Lord.”
In relation to next month’s referendum on same-sex marriage, he said he will be following the line espoused by the other Irish bishops in their “Marriage Matters” pastoral letter. “I believe, basically, that marriage between a man and a woman is both God’s will and nature’s way.”
Bishop Cullinan’s motto will be Deus Atque Audacia, “God and Daring,” and he said that encouraging young people to become more involved in the church is a goal.
“I’d love to meet young people and see where they’re at. When I was in Limerick IT, that was part and parcel of my work.”
He pointed out the attendance at the church’s World Youth Day in Madrid four years ago, when two million people were present, which is a positive message for the future.
“The Lord is still calling. Maybe right now in Ireland we’re not listening, we can’t hear because there are so many things happening. But there are also good things happening, under the current, which maybe we don’t see.”