We’ve been talking about crisis in the Church in Ireland for so long it runs the risk of becoming a vicious circle of negativity. Paradoxically, the need to face up to the piercing urgency of Church reform and renewal can become paralysing as we endlessly talk about what needs to be done.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world goes about its business tired – as Pope Francis would say – of a Church that is endlessly self-referencing.
According to the latest census figures (released late last week) some 78% of the people of the Republic now self-describe themselves as Catholic. North of the border, about 41% of people tick ‘Catholic’ on the census form. All told, 4,467,133 people on the island of Ireland describe themselves as Catholic.
Now, it would be a mistake to believe that this means the same thing to each of those almost 4.5million Catholics. Some will be devout Mass-goers, for others it will be little more than a background identity. Nonetheless, being Catholic means enough to freely choose to tick that box on the census form.
Yet, many (most?) of those who describe themselves as Catholic in Ireland rarely if ever attend Mass in their local church. For many people, the outward expression of religious faith has become irrelevant. Now, I often hear people describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. It’s an interesting term that, at first glance, appears satisfying to those who utter it.
In reality, it often means little more than vague feelings of wellness or psychological resilience. Not that coping mechanisms are not important, but they’re not the same thing as the personal relationship with God that is at the heart of Christianity.
Pope Francis never tires of urging Catholics to go to the ‘existential margins’ to make faith a reality for people. This is an urgent need in Ireland. And it can only be addressed if we are to seriously consider the Gospel mandate to preach the Good News to our contemporary culture. Amongst my peers, very few people go to Mass regularly. Not that they’re opposed to it, they’re simply left with the nagging question ‘what’s the point?’
The challenge for people of faith is not to roll our eyes at the question, but be ready to answer it. St Peter encourages Christians to “always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have” (I Peter 3:15).
We’re not very good at this – particularly in Ireland. We’ve become so used to Catholicism being the dominant culture, it no longer is.
Faith must be something that we propose and re-propose in the public sphere. There’s everything to play for and despite the obvious challenges, now is not the time for discouragement.
If the Easter story teaches us anything, it’s that God can transform the darkness of Good Friday in to the light of Easter.