Saturday 30 March 2024

The future of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland

How Ireland Took On the Church and Freed Its Soul | The New Yorker

Fewer Sunday Masses, a hunger for spirituality and the need to pay lay people to keep parishes functioning is on the minds of figures who are attempting to keep religion alive in Ireland.

As families join together to mark Easter, the Irish Examiner spoke to priests, nuns and lay people to hear their thoughts on what they believe the role of the Church and priests in communities will look like in the future.

While the results of Census 2022 have shown there has been a 10% drop in the number of people who identify as Catholics in Ireland and a 63% increase in people having no religion since the last census six years ago, Fr Tom Hayes in Clonakilty, Co Cork, believes people are desperately searching for a sense of belonging. And he’s not alone.

“I think the biggest changes there is that when I was a youngster, practically everybody in the country went to Mass on Sunday and I never had to ask why," he said.

"I think what's happened in the interim is that now people who are going to Mass now are not going just because of social conformity but they're going because they actually have a deeper connection with what it means and what it's really about.

“I think at the same time, you know, there's definitely more and more people kind of searching and looking for a kind of a deeper connection.

“So I think that makes for kind of a stronger faith community, even if it's smaller in numbers, and it also has the capacity to grow on that foundation then, which is a foundation of personal conviction."

Fr Hayes said the older members of the faith communities are happy with their beliefs and connection to God. Younger people are now more likely to have questions, he believes.

“I think a lot of younger people are what I would call questing, you know, it's kind of a mixture of questioning and searching.”

He said “life has gone into overdrive” particularly post the covid-19 pandemic and people never have time for themselves these days. 

He said he believed younger people were realising “that there actually is something missing from their lives”.

Fr Hayes said he had also noticed the number of people going into church during the day randomly to stop and say a prayer had actually significantly increased.

There’s a significant question being posed by Church leadership about the reality of parishoners' roles in parishes which is significantly changing. Fr Hayes believes parishes will not survive into the future if their role remains passive.

“It's going to be the parishioners that are going to keep faith in our communities from here on in and the priests will continue to have a very significant role but our role is going to be much more focused and others are already stepping up anyway."

However, paying people to do the job needs to happen, Fr Hayes believes.

“We also have to rethink. Lots of community groups and volunteer organisations are feeling the pinch as well, given the economy is going well, comparatively speaking, and we have almost full employment. Relying 100% on volunteerism isn't always going to be easy.

“We're also going to have to make resources available to provide a livelihood for some people, for lay people who work in parishes.

“And we've not had a great tradition of doing that in Ireland, because we had so many priests and so many religious that it was never seen as a need.

A lot of our parishes now will be really struggling to keep going without the essential work that's being done by paid parish secretaries.

He said resources needed to be provided for people to be in the ministry as well as doing administrative work.

But is there money available to do this?

“My answer to that has always been, if there's a hole in the roof in the morning we find the money to fix it,” he said.

“This is a hole in the faith community that needs to be fixed. So we need to work to find the resources where you know, parishes have been very good historically and continue to be very good at funding the maintenance of buildings. We also need to fund the maintenance of ministry and the faith life in the parishes,” he said.

Fr James McSweeney in Carrigaline believes in just six years, the Church will be hugely different to what it is today. This will include fewer Sunday Masses due to the high number of priests that are due to retire, with no replacements in some parishes.

“Simple math will tell you that the number of Sunday Masses will decrease because the priests will not be there to say them.

“The Church will have to evolve to meet these changes. Within the family of parishes, lay people will take up more leadership roles.

“There will be less priests and more people trained to lead faith communities in joyful occasions but also in the sad occasions such as bereavements and funerals. 

"Will this transition be easy or straightforward? It certainly won’t. But if the Gospels are stories of hope and good news, then we must look to the future with hope and optimism.

“People have to step up and do it and they know that they are stepping up."

Fr McSweeney also believes there is a “hunger for spirituality” out there, to believe in something and to be connected to God in whatever ways work best.

“In the last 12 months we've seen a big kind of turnaround, more families coming back and younger people as well. I genuinely do think that people are not walking away.”

He also noted in the past 12 months there had been a “swing again” in increasing Mass attendance and offertory collections are increasing, particularly in Carrigaline.

Someone attempting to get people to engage and reconnect with their faith is pastoral worker Sr Karen Kent. She has moved around the country and is now based in Tralee, Co Kerry, where she aims to get parents and children involved with the Church.

Sr Kent and the parish have developed a programme involving parents and children making their Holy Communion or Confirmation which focuses on the long-term connection with their faith and not just for the particular occasion. She hails the programme for attracting parents back getting involved with the Church, who may have not been to Mass in many years.

There is a significant programme in place for pupils making their Confirmation, which includes attending Mass, an online programme and attending an evening at a local hotel which draws a large crowd.

It includes round-table discussions where parents and children split into separate groups to hear from people whose lives have been influenced by God and the Holy Spirit.

“The children hear from four different parishioners, each telling them their story and parents hear from people about moving on their faith in life's journey alongside their children and another individual will talk about social media and its use for the good,” Sr Kent said.

Children and parents also hear from the father of Donal Walsh, the Tralee teenager who shot to prominence in 2013 for his campaigning against teenage suicide while battling osteo sarcoma, a terminal form of bone cancer.

Fionnbar Walsh speaks to the children about living life to their fullest —he is there to talk about encouraging children and supporting children, Sr Kent said. Of the 200 children making their confirmation, 180 attend the hotel event, which “gathers momentum”.

Sr Kent agreed with Fr McSweeney there is a hunger for connection and faith, however, she said work needed to continue on giving people the confidence to be open about their faith.

“A lot of people have faith but confidence to share it is not yet developed.

“People who have grown up in the Catholic faith, they have faith but sometimes they’re almost shy talking about it. We need to give them the confidence."

Fr Ronan Sheehan, one of the country’s youngest priests and based in Ballincollig, Co Cork, said there were “critical moments” when he tried to attract people to continue coming to Church.

Predominantly this is after they attend a funeral Mass and he always tries to create a sense of welcome in a bid to encourage people to return, not just for religious occasions such as Easter.

The parish runs a course for 10 weeks which gives people the opportunity to explore faith and meaning together and learn the basics of faith.

“The problem is how do you meet those people in order to invite them to kind of participate in this? It’s an ongoing process," he said.

“It's a very basic introduction to Jesus to the Bible, to the church, and to kind of the Christian faith basically.”

Fr Sheehan indicated he felt there was no longer the feeling of integration in parishes and communities, which has led to a decline in connection.

“Certainly when I was growing up, there was a great integration of, you know, this is your parish. You belong here, there was a huge culture of integration.

“The priests who come into the school, everything's fairly neatly sewn up, you know, and that's probably a lot of it was experienced in the countryside, even up until maybe now it's probably totally just dying now."

His interaction with his local parish priest is what led him to joining the priesthood.

“I was inspired by the pastoral life by the pastoral life of my parish priest and I created some sort of space through prayer.

“There might have been a little call to action too,” he added.

Sitting at his kitchen table, Fr Sheehan admits it can be lonely being a priest, particularly given he’s a young man.

“You experience moments of loneliness but you can be married in a house full of people and experience loneliness as well.”

For people who are curious or on the periphery of reconnecting with their faith, Fr Hayes’ advice is to “dive in and get stuck in”.

“Get involved in some local community group in a parish group. Join a pilgrimage as a volunteer — it's a transforming thing to do. I've never met anybody who said that I regretted doing something like that. It's a kind of a growth moment for them.”