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‘We’re in a kind of new apostolic era’: An interview with Wales’ Catholic archbishop

‘We’re in a kind of new apostolic era’: An interview with Wales’ Catholic archbishop

Bishop Mark O’Toole received a daunting new mission from Pope Francis in April. The bishop, who had led the southern English Diocese of Plymouth since 2014, was given not one but two new dioceses  — in a different country.

The pope asked him to oversee the Archdiocese of Cardiff and the Diocese of Menevia in Wales. The dioceses would not be merged but united “in persona episcopi” (in the person of the bishop), a growing trend in the Western Catholic world.

Following the appointment, O’Toole - the former private secretary to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor - admitted he knew little about Wales, a proud nation of 3 million people within the United Kingdom.

The 59-year-old archbishop spoke to The Pillar on Wednesday via Zoom about what he has discovered about Wales since his installation in June, why he rejects the idea of inevitable decline, and whether he could cope with a third diocese.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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On April 24 this year, Pope Francis named you metropolitan archbishop of Cardiff and bishop of Menevia, uniting the two sees in persona episcopi.

Responding to the appointment, you said that Wales was “new territory” for you, as you had only previously visited it “for holidays and retreats.” How did you go about learning more?

The appointment was a great surprise to me. I realized — and still realize — that I’ve got a lot to learn and a lot to listen to. I came here at the end of June. I’ve just been meeting lots of different people, sitting down with them and listening. One of the most important things for me has been to visit the parishes in the different parts of both dioceses, and I’ve started from the peripheries.

That started in earnest in the beginning of September. That first week or so, I spent visiting those priests in the far part of West Wales, down through to the Cardigan coast, Fishguard, Pembroke Dock, Milford Haven. Then the following week, I went the furthest east: part of the Archdiocese of Cardiff is in Herefordshire in England.

Why does a Welsh archdiocese include part of England?

It’s a historic connection. In fact, Welsh was spoken in parts of Herefordshire even up to the middle of the 19th century. I think the Holy See, when it established the diocese —  initially, it was the Diocese of Newport and Menevia — it was centered at Belmont because of the ancient connection with Belmont Abbey, which is in Herefordshire. I think the Holy See was reaching back into that kind of ancient Christian connection.

Welsh was also spoken in parts of Shropshire, which is in the Diocese of Shrewsbury, but we’re not looking to take over Shrewsbury at this point…

It is a challenge, because Herefordshire is part of England, and with Welsh identity becoming stronger in the past, say, 20 years, there’s an element where people in Herefordshire can feel a little bit marginalized.

In that sense, it’s been interesting for me to be able to also visit the parts of West Wales because they also feel very much on the periphery. I’m about halfway through those visits, and I’ve still got a long way to go in terms of meeting people one-to-one and getting to know the beautiful geography of the two dioceses.

What makes Welsh Catholicism different from Catholicism in other countries?

I’m still learning. The very strong link with the Celtic, that’s very clear in terms of the roots of Catholicism, although it does go back even further than [the 6th-century] St. David. It goes back to Roman times. In fact, the day on which I was installed as Archbishop of Cardiff, June 20, is a feast of two of those Roman martyrs, Aaron and Julian, who share that feast with St. Alban, who’s better known as an English martyr. So Christianity is very ancient in this part of the country. And then it had a very strong impetus with St. David and that whole Celtic dimension.

In terms of its character, the numbers have been relatively small. And I think a focus on littleness is strong within Welsh Catholicism. They take a phrase from the last words of St. David, which is “Do the little things well.” It’s almost a 6th-century anticipation of the Little Way of St. Thérèse. “Gwnewch y pethau bychain” (“Do the little things well”): it’s one of the last phrases that David left with his monks. Life is full of the little daily tasks you have to do. So doing those with great love and great sensitivity.

Catholicism is also very much in the landscape. This is particularly true if you go westwards around St. David’s and St. Non’s, the mother of St. David, the holy sites associated with them. There’s that Celtic [sense of] being on the fringe of Europe. Sometimes people have played up that it was anti-Roman. I don’t think it was. In fact, the sense of connection to Rome was very strong. And I think that’s still the case.

Archbishop Mark O’Toole at his installation as archbishop of Cardiff on June 20, 2022. © Mazur/

The pandemic has hit church attendance all over the world, no doubt including Wales. But where do you see signs of growth and hope in the Welsh Church?

You’re absolutely right: it was devastating. The number of people attending [Mass] in Wales was relatively small in comparison to other parts of the United Kingdom. But interestingly, the return, in some ways, percentage-wise has been stronger because those communities are smaller, and therefore there’s a strong sense of community when people do come back. When I’ve said Masses in the parishes on the weekends, I’ve been struck by the vibrancy of some of those communities, not just in the cities, but in some of the rural communities too.

A sign of hope for me would be around some of the young people, through the university chaplaincies. That’s been a really engaging and encouraging sign. Some of our priests are doing great work as chaplains in those universities, trying to animate a stronger sense of vocation and making decisions for life.

We’ve yet to see what the ultimate fallout of the pandemic will be, but it did raise for people the fundamental questions about the end of life and mortality. It’d be interesting to see sociologically whether there is an impact there on people making a choice for faith or for a particular vocation.

It’s certainly true that some elements of our congregations haven’t returned. Some people have got used to “doing church online,” as they say. That is also a sign of some of the failures of our catechesis, that people haven’t missed the Eucharist in the way that we would perhaps hope or envisage they would. But then others have really been stimulated by the fact that faith means the world to them, having come through this period.

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Wales has an impressive history of martyrs, including Philip Evans and John Lloyd, Richard Gwyn, and William Davies. What strikes you most about them?

This is resonant for me because I come from a tradition and a connection with the Martyrs of Douai and those who were trained as priests on the Continent. One of the lovely things to rediscover in coming to Wales is that tradition of the priest-martyrs, working also in collaboration with their people, because there were also some lay people who were martyred during that period after the Reformation and during the persecution times of Catholics in these islands.

Two dimensions are very strong in all of those martyrs that you mentioned. One is the love of the Mass, and the promotion of participation in the Mass, and the second element is this strong connection with the successor of St. Peter and being part of that Catholic family that is universal. Those two elements would be strong for Welsh Catholicism and that tradition of martyrs too.

What’s your connection to Douai?

I came through Allen Hall, which was originally founded from Douai. The patrons of the college are the martyrs. The first of those would have been a man called St. Cuthbert Mayne. I was also then rector of Allen Hall before becoming bishop. When I was appointed to Plymouth, Cuthbert Mayne, who was the protomartyr of Douai, was born in Devon [the county that includes Plymouth] and then martyred in Cornwall. So there was another connection there.

Philip Evans and John Lloyd were imprisoned in Cardiff Castle. Their last words on the scaffold were the words of Cuthbert Mayne, “In manus tuas, Domine” (“Into your hands, Lord”), which is my episcopal motto. You feel there’s a providence of God somewhere in all of that.

Archbishop Mark O’Toole kneels before the statue of Our Lady of the Taper on June 23, 2022. © Mazur/

When Benedict XVI visited Britain in 2010, he spent time in Scotland and England, but didn’t visit Wales. He did, however, bless the statue of Our Lady of the Taper brought from the National Shrine of Our Lady in Cardigan, saying it would be “a lasting reminder of the pope’s deep love for the Welsh people.”

What role does the shrine play in Welsh Catholicism?

It’s very beautiful. Another aspect of the rich Catholic texture of life here is that the love of Mary is part of our identity. Our Lady of the Taper is very much in the west, where you would have seen the sun setting. And it’s an unusual statue because she is holding a lighted candle. That would also be part of the experience, witnessing the setting of the sun and therefore the sense that Mary is the one who lights the way and leads us to her Son. So that’s a lovely shrine.

It was a great privilege for me that they brought the statue of Our Lady of the Taper both to Cardiff and to Swansea for the two installation ceremonies. I visited the shrine when I was in West Wales and spent some time there. People come at all times of the day to visit. There are organized pilgrimages, and it’s good that we’re able to do that again now, coming out of the pandemic. Like every other part of the United Kingdom, Wales has quite a number of migrant communities. So it’s particularly the migrants’ love of Our Lady which is showing strength in that shrine too.

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You mentioned in your installation homily that Wales aspires to be a “nation of sanctuary.” What does that mean?

The Welsh government has assumed that description and has an aspiration that as a nation, it would be a place of sanctuary. And it’s understood, yes, referring to an openness to migrants and the richness that they bring in terms of the cultural life, because Wales and Herefordshire are culturally diverse, as many parts of these islands are. But also it refers — politically, this is — to the sense that they want every person within Wales to be able to develop to their fullest potential and make a contribution to the society.

Now, another ancient Welsh phrase is “A fo ben, bid bont” (“To be a leader, you must be a bridge”). One of the challenges as a Church leader is to be able to see where the points of connection can be with the political realm in a positive way, rather than just in a very critical way. There are moments when prophetically we have to be critical of the government, or of the National Assembly, in terms of its policy.

It seems to me that behind that sense of the development of every person is a very Judeo-Christian understanding of each person made in the image and likeness of God and the dignity of every human being. So when I referred to it in my homily, I was referring to both those aspects: the affirmation of the dignity of the human person created in the image and likeness of God developing to their full potential, and also an openness to the outsider, the stranger, the migrant.

It’s interesting that the political realm, the secular realm, has embraced what is a religious term: “sanctuary.” Sanctuary refers to the sacred space, usually in a church or a shrine, where the gap between the earthly and the heavenly is thin. One of the challenges for us as Catholics in Wales and Herefordshire would be to be able to give a witness to that truth, that aspect of sanctuary, that human life cannot be completely understood unless it also has this transcendent dimension. And that, of course, isn’t an aspect which the secular is articulating or promoting. In fact, it’s probably a bit empty.

The Church has clashed with the Welsh government over planned changes to religious education in Catholic schools and parents’ right to withdraw their children from "Relationship and Sex Education."

What does this say about the political climate in Wales?

We try to work where possible in cooperation, particularly trying to make it very clear that our schools are the most culturally diverse and the most inclusive in terms of the objective statistics. So trying to get the government to recognize that our schools aren’t ghettos, that they’re open to society. They are places in which our young people grow into being healthy and open and good citizens. Once the educationalists in the government can see that and witness that, then there is more openness to what we’re trying to do also in relationship education, and that that has a very rich understanding of the human person and it’s portraying the human person in a positive light.

But there are moments where the secularism that is present sometimes in political life has a hard edge and is not as tolerant as it sometimes portrays itself as being. At those moments, we do have to stand up for religious expression and religious liberty.

I suspect that Wales is not unlike much of the Western world in that, and the United States too, where there are elements within the public domain which want to marginalize the religious faith voice or to try and paint us into a corner which is prejudicial. We’ve got to try to prophetically witness to the truth of what we hold about the human person and human sexuality.

Archbishop Mark O’Toole on the day of his installation as Bishop of Menevia, June 23, 2022. © Mazur/

You were born in Southwark, England. Your predecessor was born in Cork, Ireland. His predecessor was born in London. He followed an archbishop who was born in Leeds, who came after one who was born in Birkenhead. Why is it that archbishops of Cardiff aren’t Welsh?

It's hard for me to know what the rationales were in terms of the appointments of my predecessors. I do know some aspects about my own appointment and the fact that this was an appointment for the pastoral accompaniment of two dioceses, not just one.

Therefore, I think in the Holy See’s mind it indicated that it probably needed to be a bishop who had some experience already of being a pastor in a diocese. So that limits the pool quite a lot.

The reality is that in our bishops’ conference in England and Wales at the moment, we do not have any Welshmen. That’s about to change. The new bishop of East Anglia is a Cardiff priest. It’s good that there is going to be a Welshman in our conference moving forward.

Just to be absolutely candid with you — and this has been a surprise to me in coming to Cardiff — there is a gap in the priests who are in the age group between 45 and 65. Something happened. I don’t know what really, but that age group of priests seems to be missing from the presbyterate in Cardiff. There’s a significant number of men who are 65 to 70 and above, and there’s quite a nice group of the newer ordained over the last 10 years. There are about eight or so of them, which is encouraging. But this middle-aged group seems to be missing.

Now, whether Wales was hit by the abuse crisis earlier, in the ’90s and 2000s… Some men left the priesthood and I think one or two have gone to other ecclesial situations, either to other religious congregations or to other dioceses. But it is striking to me coming into the diocese that that age group is missing. It’s a real part of the picture.

Is it conceivable that at some point there could be a single Catholic archbishop for Wales, responsible for the Archdiocese of Cardiff and the dioceses of Menevia and Wrexham?

I think it’s conceivable. I’m hoping that doesn’t come. I’m very, very happy to be getting to know, for these next few years, both Menevia and Cardiff, and I think I’ve got enough to do in coming to terms with the reality on the ground and also trying to help us take a few steps forward in mission together. But I suppose inevitably, when you see the connection like this [between Menevia and Cardiff], Wrexham is vulnerable in terms of numbers of priests and resources and so on. But the Holy See would have to look carefully, obviously in consultation with ourselves, as to how that might look, because the territory is huge.

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Why is Wales joined to the bishops’ conference of England when Scotland has its own separate bishops’ conference?

I don’t really know. When the hierarchy was established [in 1850], I think there was one Welsh diocese, of Newport and Menevia. I think it’s to do with the number of Catholics and clergy at that time. There was probably a feeling that wasn’t enough at that particular time.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

I’m a great believer that we’re in a kind of new apostolic era. I see it as a kind of opportunity. I’m not somebody who paints a picture of decline. There’s an opportunity here, that we’re living through a period which is very similar to those first three centuries in the life of the Church, when the Church was maybe quite small. Nevertheless, the challenge is to be confident and to be outgoing in terms of our witness. In that sense, Christendom has gone in this society, in this culture. I think sometimes we act, and we try to move forward, as though that is still what we’re living through.

I don't know if you’ve come across that work by Mgsr. James Shea, “From Christendom to Apostolic Mission,” which I think describes a lot of what we’re facing here, including those aspects which are kind of resistant in the society and the fact that we need to be quite deeply rooted in our faith, and particularly in our personal discipleship of the Lord, our relationship with Him, in order to be able to be strong enough to sustain what secularization is throwing at us.

You received the pallium from Pope Francis on June 29. When will the placing of the pallium occur?

I think it’s going to be early in the New Year. I have asked the nuncio. He understandably wanted to give the pallium to the new Archbishop of Glasgow first. So I’m hoping I’m next on the list.

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