Imagine, for a moment you, are 77 and want to step down from your demanding, full-on job but can’t until you’re bosses say so.
That’s the situation the Bishop of Meath Dr Michael Smith finds himself in - and there’s a real sense he is looking forward to the day when he can finally move on to the next phase of his life.
When he reached 75 the Oldcastle man did what he was obliged by Church rules to do and sent a formally-worded letter to the Vatican gently reminding the powers-that-be of his age.
Then, also as required, he waited to be told he could go... and waited. He’s still waiting today for his successor to be announced although, he stresses, he’s not making an issue out of it. He will continue to do the job to the best of his ability until told otherwise.
“Maybe in the new year,” he says in reference to the Church finding a successor. “They will find someone whether they will find him at home or not I don’t know. They have a long tradition in this diocese of finding bishops from the diocese, nearly all from north Meath believe it or not. It’s two years now and no, they’re not rushing but maybe early next year. I’m happy enough to retire, 34 years is a long stretch.”
That stoic willingness to make the best of a situation; to keep going no matter what; to serve God to the best of his ability, as long as he can, has long been a central tenet of his life.
During a lengthy conversation in his house in Mullingar he refers a number of times to the fact he never asked to be a bishop. You get the real sense he would be just as happy to have been appointed to a parish somewhere and left to get on with spreading The Word. However, life, he muses, can lead you down unexpected routes.
“You don’t apply for these jobs, you’re just told you have been appointed. I suppose in theory you could say no,” he explains as he sits in one of the front rooms of his house while his housekeeper brings tea and a generous serving of biscuits. Later he adds: “A parish would be a lot easier, let’s put it that way, I didn’t chose to be a bishop, we were appointed but I did choose to be a priest.”
Not that there’s any obvious reason why he can’t still do the job. He looks considerably younger than his years. Apart from a prostrate operation a few years ago, he has had no major health problems. At least two people had said to this writer they understood the Bishop had Parkinsons but he says that’s simply not true. “I don’t know where that rumour came from,” he adds with mild bemusement.
Bishop Smith has long enjoyed a game of golf. He rarely gets out on the course these days but there was a time not too long ago when his handicap was down to a very respectable seven. He looks slim and enjoys taking his dog Lucy out for walks. While strolling along the lengthy driveway leading up to his house last Wednesday morning (as photographer Thomas Gibbons took some shots) Lucy suddenly darted away in pursuit of a fox the Bishop had also spotted. “I think they have a den down there in the garden,” he added like someone who enjoys the closeness of nature.
The Bishop’s residence in Mullingar these days is a modern, spacious two-story structure, located close to an old stonehouse once known as the ‘Bishop’s Palace,’ now privately owned. The new HQ is roomy, he adds, because it needs to be to incorporate the extensive files involved with the administration of the diocese.
Michael Smith grew up just outside Oldcastle. “Please don’t refer to Oldcastle as a village,” he says with a laugh. “We always liked to see it as a town.” His father John was "a cattleman" and young Michael - the second youngest of a large family recalls how his “idyllic” childhood was filled with days either rounding up or counting livestock. However, harsh reality also hit home with the untimely death of his father when young Michael was just 12.
After attending Gilson NS in Oldcastle he went to St Finian’s, Mullingar and from a very early age he knew he wanted to be a priest. He attended university in Rome, studied Canon Law and worked on keeping the official records of the Second Vatican Council. Not only did the young Oldcastle man, who was ordained a priest in 1963, learn to speak Latin and Italian, he acquired the skill of writing shorthand in Latin.
Back home he became diocesan secretary and executive secretary of the Bishops’ Conference. Then there was a spell as chaplain of St Loman’s Psychiatric Hospital, Mullingar; a role he greatly enjoyed. At the precocious age of just 43, out of the blue, he was appointed Bishop of Meath and in that role he played in central role in organising Pope John Paul II’s trip to Ireland in 1979.
Reflecting now on his most challenging time as Bishop he points to the tsunami of sex abuse cases that threatened to overwhelm the Church. He had his share of cases to deal sort out. “It’s something that’s very hard to get your head around,” he said reflecting on it all.
“It was hard to deal with, historic cases kept showing up too, people long dead but you have to deal with it, recognise the pain people suffer.”
He says the Church was “ahead of the game in many ways” in grappling with the abuse issue, pointing out how it’s now 21-years since new protocols were put in place to counteract the evil.
On the issue of the shortage of priests, he points out that while there are 69 parishes in his jurisdiction there is as yet no indication of an acute lack of clerics certainly compared to some areas in the west - and as regards the issue of women of the cloth he clearly sees that as a non-runner.
“I wouldn’t put any bets on that, no, no, I’d say that will never happen, I don’t think so,” he says. “I always think it’s an insult to women that they must be priests because there’s a charisma in femininity and a charisma in masculinity and somehow you’re saying it’s a lacking in women because you’re not a priest, there’s that sort of thing I find difficult. Just because there’s a shortage it doesn’t mean women have to get on the alter.”
He holds much the same views on married priests. “I’m not so sure that would solve the problem either,” he adds.
At no point has Dr Michael Smith ever regretted choosing the priesthood but, life intervened and he ended up as a bishop. “Regrets? Not about the priesthood, I never would have doubted whether I should stay or not or anything like that. I’ve never had an issue like that but you would certainly think there are things you could have done better along the way.”
Now he’s waiting for that call or letter from Rome telling him he’s done his bit; that he’s served his time.
You get the sense he will breath a sigh of relief when that call, or letter from Rome, finally arrives.