Reading the signs of the times in Raphoe
Ireland's first Jesuit bishop is set to discern the will of the Spirit in his new diocese

New Bishop of Raphoe Alan McGuckian (centre), with his brothers Fr Michael McGuckian (left), and Fr Bernard McGuckian at his ordination.

Raphoe’s Bishop Alan McGuckian first spent time in what would eventually become his diocese almost 50 years ago, when his love for the Irish language brought him to Rann na Feirste as a 15-year-old.

Although he’s been a regular visitor to Donegal’s Gaeltacht since his teenage years, he only moved to the diocese on Wednesday of last week, just days ahead of his episcopal ordination in Letterkenny’s Cathedral of Ss Eunan and Columba, and now faces the job of getting to know Raphoe.

“I first came to Donegal Gaeltacht in 1968,” he tells The Irish Catholic, “and I’ve had a great affection for this part of the world ever since, but now, concretely while I have known some of the priests and some of the lay people in the diocese by working not far away in Down and Connor, I’m in many ways just at the beginning of getting to know priests and people.”


Even in the few days that he’s been in the diocese, however, he’s been taken by the dedication of the people of Raphoe, he says, commenting especially on the preparations for his ordination Mass.

“I have been so impressed by people who’ve been working away for weeks preparing the Mass – it’s a tremendous community effort by people all across the diocese,” he says, adding, “There’ll be a choir made up of people from all the parishes in the dioceses.”

Born in Antrim in 1953, the youngest of six children, two of whom also became priests, Bishop McGuckian’s path to Raphoe has been a distinctive one, not least by virtue of his breaking a well-established mould and becoming Ireland’s first Jesuit bishop: the country almost had two Jesuit bishops in the 18th Century, but one resigned his appointment before being ordained, while the other, though a Jesuit in his student days, was ordained to the priesthood after the order had been – temporarily – suspended.

“Throughout my Jesuit life I took it for granted that I would never be a bishop – that simply was not on the cards,” Dr McGuckian explains. “In the few months before I was called to go to the papal nunciature, I had heard some rumours – you don’t know how seriously you should take those, and when I heard that I was being asked to go to the papal nunciature, there’s no getting away from it: that was a shock, even though there had been some intimation that it might happen.”


Even if Jesuits aren’t normally considered to head dioceses, Dr McGuckian is clearly convinced that they have something special to offer when given such a task.

“As regards the Jesuits, I am incredibly grateful for the particular formation that they gave me,” he says. “Without Jesuit formation my life would have been very much less rich than it has been. It has a quality of conviction about the Incarnation, that God, through the Incarnation, is really present and active in the stuff of our lives, including the messiness. I have found that incredibly wholesome and even healing in my life.”

“So I have a sense that even though Jesuits are normally not bishops, and that’s how it’s likely still to be,” he continues, “I would hope that I will bring something of the richness I believe the Jesuits have given me to this, and I would hope that please God I will do some credit to the formation that the Jesuits have given me.”

For Ireland to get its first Jesuit bishop during the papacy of the Church’s first Jesuit Pope can hardly pass without comment, but Dr McGuckian thinks Pope Francis is a uniquely inspiring figure, even aside from his being a fellow member of the Society of Jesus.

“Francis is a Jesuit Pope and in many ways Francis is a unique individual,” he says, continuing, “there’s no other Jesuit I ever knew who’s quite like Pope Francis. I think he’s quite fearless in his conviction that the Spirit is at the heart of the Church and that we don’t need to be afraid. I love that in him. I would love to share in some of that as I go forward. I think he’s one of a kind.”

The Pontiff regularly speaks of discernment as a necessary skill and duty in the modern Church, and for Dr McGuckian, this seems a crucial insight.

“The Christian of conviction has to be a Christian who is convinced that the Spirit is alive in his or her life, guiding his or her decisions, day to day and moment to moment, and that’s not simply following the rulebook – it’s being in touch with the Spirit of the living God, and that’s what we mean by discernment,” he says. “We need that – we really do; we’re looking for people of conviction who have to be people in touch with the Spirit alive in their lives.”


It’s been said that the Church in the West is shifting from a Church of convention to one of conviction, and this reality – one that’s sparked the so-called ‘New Evangelisation’ in recent decades – is a challenge in Ireland as much as anywhere else, Dr McGuckian believes, spelling out the first of what he sees as three key challenges for the Church in modern Ireland.

“The principle business of the Church is the living of the Faith, and in Ireland in these recent decades we’re becoming more and more a part of this western world where Faith is not taken for granted the way it was when I was young,” he says.

“There is an ongoing challenge to us,” he continues, “it’s become apparent to all of us in Ireland that we need a Faith that is mature enough and in a certain sense adult enough to live and thrive without the kind of cultural supports that we had before.”

At the same time, he says, this is not a matter of personal or private Faith, but is a communal and concrete reality, one borne out in how we live our lives in a world where we all so often need each other’s help.

“This is not just a recipe of pure piety,” he says, explaining that the second big challenge is for the Church to continue to be a Church that walks the walk as well as talking the talk. “We – all of us – have to learn to be people of real prayer, incarnated prayer, where relationship with God is a part of our lives: a part of our individual lives and a part of the web of the way we live in our communities.

“A key part of that then, obviously, is the social reality: we are aware in a whole lot of places, more than before, of people struggling with poverty, many people worried about their houses and mortgages and people losing their houses,” he observes.

“Quietly the Catholic Church’s agencies are on the forefront of that all the time, in ways that most of us don’t have to the forefront of our minds all the time. The St Vincent de Paul and others are always doing that on our behalf,” he says, continuing, “I think we as a Church need to know that is key to who we are as people of Faith”.

Organisations like the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul do “tremendous work” and are absolutely vital, he says, to the expression of the Church’s mission, and need whatever support and encouragement they can get.

“The Church does so much for the homeless,” he explains, highlighting how “the Saint Vincent de Paul in so many places I am aware of is quietly working away, supporting people and dealing with all of the issues around poverty going up all over Ireland, both in urban and rural situations”.

Pointing out that this is just one of many Church-related bodies working in such ways to help people, he says “care for the marginalised is core to our Faith”, and says Catholics should “take courage from the fact that quietly things are being done in our name and on our behalf, often unbeknownst to us”.


The third big challenge he identifies is an obviously topical one: Donegal, of course, is a border county, and as such is set to face in a rather sharp way the challenges facing Ireland as a whole following the British vote in last year’s Brexit referendum.

“The other big challenge that I am very aware of now, coming from Belfast and living pretty much in a border diocese is the challenge that Brexit could be. We’re in an unknown world where we worry about the kind of border that will be a hard border or a soft border. That could be a huge challenge for us in Ireland,” he says.

Whatever happens, however, the Church will have a key role to play in what could be a fractious time, drawing people together despite their divisions.

“The Church is the channel of communion – the Church is in the business of communion,” he says, “and it’ll be the business of Church people in Ireland and in the UK and throughout Europe to ensure communion is maintained as much as possible.

“It could have huge consequences both socially and economically in both parts of Ireland, and there’s always the danger that a huge change could have for our still sensitive peace process.”

Clear and careful communication will be crucial for this, and if Dr McGuckian thinks ‘walking the walk’ is indispensable if the Church is to have integrity and be who she is meant to be, so he thinks ‘talking the talk’ is vital too. Indeed, his own path through life has spelled this out for him. 

“After I was ordained a priest, I spent a number of years in education in Clongowes Wood College – that was both teaching and pastoral care of young people,” he says, observing that he developed some communication and other skills then, with him really getting a sense of the importance of this in his next major posting.

“Then I was asked to run the Jesuit Communications Centre, and that gave me a sense of the importance of having clarity about the message, and always having ways to express your message – whatever it is – clearly and coherently and with some vigour,” he says.

Between these two major postings he spent several months in India and the Philippines, which have given him a valuable insight into one of the real signs of hope for Ireland’s changing Church, given how recent years have seen immigration to Ireland of people from these and other countries.


“The presence of people from all of these countries – I’m thinking here of India and the Philippines – is potentially one of the great riches that we have over those who went before us,” he says. “Often multicultural societies can have their problems, but we in the Church can make the multiculturalism of the coming Church in Ireland a great blessing to all of us – making us sensitive and keeping us sensitive to the needs of other countries but also realising that Catholics from India, the Philippines, Africa, and so many other places have so much to teach us.”

In 2011, he was sent to the Diocese of Down and Connor, to work under Bishop Noel Treanor as Director of the Living Church office, which brought home to him in a profound way how effectively priests and laity can work together in common tasks.

“I have been really privileged to be responsible in a co-responsible way in the Living Church office – we priests and laypeople worked really well together, sharing the mission of building a living Church,” he says, pointing out that his work in Clongowes, the Jesuit Communications Office, and Living Church have given him “a love for good communication and a real desire for priests and people to share in the mission of the Church together”.

One obvious question for clergy who advocate greater lay involvement is whether this is being considered purely because of a vocational decline – or, at any rate, a decline in people responding to calls to the priesthood and religious life – but Dr McGuckian thinks that this doesn’t do justice to the theological reality that’s at stake.

“I don’t like to look at the idea of co-responsibility for the mission of the Church purely in terms of a response to declining numbers of clergy,” he says. “The vocation of the laity is to be the face of Christ in the world and for that to be the face of the Church – that has been with us so clearly now for decades, in particular since the Second Vatican Council. I think now may be the time when something that has been there is called to come to the fore and to take on real flesh and live. It has to always be clergy and laity working together.”

The Living Church project came about off the back of a report and a diocesan pastoral plan drawn up after a listening process that engaged with priests and laity across Down and Connor’s 87 parishes, so an obvious question is whether Dr McGuckian has plans for a similar plan in his new diocese.

“My experience in Down and Connor over the six years was a really privileged one,” he says. Explaining that “the time was right for a formal listening process” in Down and Connor, he says Bishop Noel Treanor set up the Living Church office as “something of an engine to move on the issues that were raised”.

However, he says, he does not yet know whether a similar approach should be tried in Raphoe. “I’m very slow particularly coming to a new diocese to say that any one thing is the recipe for everywhere else,” he says. “I’m aware that in other dioceses in Ireland, different things have been going on, starting in different places, because it seems that at the time people were in a different place – I think the Spirit blows where it blows, and we have to honour that.”

Confident that God has his own plans for Raphoe, Dr McGuckian, therefore, isn’t keen to rush in with untested ideas.

“Coming to the diocese of Raphoe, my sense would be that I want to come with a conviction that the spirit has been blowing in Raphoe long before I came along and will be long after I’m gone,” he says, adding that his challenge is to find a way to discern what God wants of him there.

“I would love to find a way to be with people – with priests and people – listening to the Spirit here. What way that will be done remains to be seen,” he says. “I really do believe that you need to respect where the Spirit is blowing locally, and you begin to find that out and ask together with priests and people ‘how’s the Spirit prompting us here?’, and then you respond.”