Sunday 17 December 2017

The Church has its cross to bear

At one time in the 1950s, Ireland was described as 'the most Catholic country in the world'. But this week's census figures show a surge in the numbers with 'no religion'. In the first part of our series on faith in Ireland, our reporter looks at the state of the Catholic church. Is it more about ­heritage than true belief?

Leader of the choir: Leslie Dowdall at St Brigid's Church, Cabinteely. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
Leader of the choir: Leslie Dowdall at St Brigid's Church, Cabinteely. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

The latest census figures show that the Catholic church is in decline in Ireland, but the fall off in numbers is not spectacular.

The number of people who marked themselves down as having "no religion" in the 2016 census surged by 74pc - and for church authorities, the figures for young people must be particularly alarming.

Up to 45pc who class themselves as having no religion are in the 20-39 age bracket.

But given the hammering that the Church has taken in recent years - from the institutional abuse scandals right up to the stories of the Tuam babies - it is perhaps surprising that 78pc of the population still put their religion down as Catholic.

Tom Inglis, associate professor of sociology at UCD, has studied the depth of faith in Ireland in recent years.

"The census confirms that Ireland is less Catholic than it was five years ago, but it is not a tsunami," he says.

Inglis has explored what it means to declare yourself a Catholic in the 21st century. Does this declaration of faith in fact mean anything at all?

If a member of the public puts their religion down as Pentecostal or Muslim, one could be pretty confident that they attend a place of worship regularly.

But all the available figures show that the vast majority of self-proclaimed Catholics do not darken the door of a church for months on end.

In some parts of Dublin, Mass attendance among Catholics is known to be as low as 3pc. In wealthier suburbs, the figures are much higher.

Father Seamus Ahearne, the Augustinian parish priest of Finglas South in Dublin, says: "In the past the Church was the people of the poor, but now if you want to find higher attendance figures, it is in area like Dublin 4."

Parishes that are attracting 15pc of Catholics to Mass in Dublin are considered to be doing well, and these are concentrated in more affluent suburbs.

As with the Irish language, most people in Ireland learn Catholicism from a young age, but they do not speak it in everyday life.

"Religion is not in the hearts, in the minds or on the lips of Catholics," says Inglis.

The workings of the holy spirit may not be a hot topic for conversation over lattes and Americanos in South Dublin coffee shops.

But that does not mean that most people want to jettison their traditions entirely, according to Inglis.

The sociologist says that there is still a diminishing group of orthodox Catholics who remain loyal members of the institutional church.

But the majority are what he terms 'Cultural Catholics'. They connect with the Church during important rites of passage in their lives, and those of their children.

Their Catholic identity remains important, even if they do not live out most of their lives in a spiritual realm.

They would sooner walk over hot coals than read the catechism or go to confession. They might scoff at the old-style pilgrimage to Lourdes, but you might find them on a minibreak "walking the Camino".

Father Ahearne says: "Most people do not have a personal relationship with God."

They may have abandoned a devout faith, but that does mean they have embraced the rugged individualism of a consumer society. According to Inglis, Irish people now find meaning in family life, their sense of place, and relationships with friends and neighbours.

For most people, the Church still remains an important venue for family events. As one leader of a Dublin parish council puts it with a certain bemusement: "A lot of people only really go to a church now when they are hatched, matched and dispatched. Otherwise we don't see them."

Most children are still christened as Catholics, but that is an event that is becoming as social as it is religious. The kids attend Catholic primary schools, take First Communion in a church and go through Confirmation.

The church is still the number one backdrop for weddings, and it retains a near monopoly on funerals.

"The church is still popular for these big family events, because we haven't yet found an alternative cultural wrapping," says Inglis.

The Catholic church still has patronage of 90pc of primary schools - and for many families this is the thin thread that keeps them tied to any kind of formal religion.

The issue of church control of schools is highly controversial.

One can see why parents in areas such as Dún Laoghaire are pre-occupied by the lack of an alternative. In that area, the census figures show that one in three people there is non-Catholic.

At the same time there is little opposition to church control of schools on the ground in many areas, and parents have been slow to press for change.

"This may be because many parents are happy for their children to have a Catholic cultural formation," says Inglis.

"They still want to pass on fundamental values to their children in order to give them something."

For the cultural Catholic, passing over a child's education to the Church can make life simpler too.

Explaining the meaning of life, the universe and everything to a child can be a complicated business. It may be more convenient to delegate this responsibility to a religious teacher or a priest.

For his book, Meanings of Life in Contemporary Ireland, Inglis questioned 100 people about their beliefs.

Many of those who featured in his research found Catholic beliefs and customs a source of comfort and consolation. But he was surprised at the level of doubt and scepticism among those who professed themselves to be Catholic. Some replies seemed to owe more to Father Ted than the Holy Father in Rome.

One respondent, asked about his belief in God, replies: "I don't pray... but we do Holy Communion and all that."

Another married Catholic husband says: "I'm Catholic, but believing in God is... yeah, I suppose I do, but... you know when you look at things and you kind of say it's like a wish, you know."

Only two of the respondents in the study seemed to embrace religion as an integral part of their everyday lives. One was Pentecostalist who talked of the presence of God when she prayed.

The other was a Muslim who felt Mohammed was more important in his life than everything, including his own father. When he got in his car, instead of turning on the radio, he prayed for 15 minutes.

For the cultural Catholic, on the other hand, religion seems to be a flag of convenience. At certain times, when there are gaps in their lives, they may turn to the faith of their fathers for comfort and have moments of spiritual reflection.

Priests could be forgiven for occasionally feeling like inexpensive event organisers.

One chairwoman of a parish council expressed irritation that churches may be chosen for a wedding because they look good in the photos rather than any attachment to a parish.

And the wedding Mass may just be a secondary event in a mini-marriage festival that goes on for days. It could be some way behind the hen night and the pre-wedding barbecue in the nuptial pecking order.

Inglis believes that the church is more likely to host a funeral than a wedding because it is difficult to organise such a big event at short notice.

Increasingly, funerals are becoming occasions when the secular norms of modern Ireland collide with the ancient rites of the institutional church.

The Church wants to keep eulogies short and lay down rules about such matters as what can be done with the ashes (not on the mantelpiece). And they would prefer if Grandpa did not go off to meet his maker to the sound of Queen's 'Another One Bites the Dust'.

But families can become quite indignant if a priest tries to bar them from turning the Mass into a fully customised tribute concert with few spiritual overtones.

The census figures show enormous variation in religious affiliation. In contrast to Dún Laoghaire, just 12.9pc of people are non-Catholic in Tipperary.

Inglis lives in Cootehall, Co Roscommon and he says the Catholic church, the local school and the GAA are still the pillars of the local community in rural areas.

"They are inter-related in the parish, but in many areas the GAA has replaced the Church as the main centre of community life, and you could say sport has become the new religion."

An immediate and pressing problem for the Church is that priests are a dying breed, with many required to work into their seventies or eighties because of falling vocations.

As he departed Ireland in the past month, the papal nuncio Archbishop Charles Brown warned that the Church was at the edge of an actuarial cliff and about to go into freefall as far as the number of priests is concerned.

The Jesuit theologian Gerry O'Hanlon says this week's census shows that the Church needs to read the signs of the times to allow the voices of lay people to be heard, and in particular women.

"Women are stalwarts of the Catholic church when it comes to attendance and participation. The role of women in the Church, as it is now, is unacceptable in modern times," he says.

In the current issue of the Jesuit journal Studies, the editorial says that back in the early 1950s, a contemporary observer was able to describe Ireland as "the most Catholic country in the world".

But in this decade, the Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has warned that the Church is in danger of becoming "an irrelevant minority culture".

O'Hanlon says the church will have to find a way of re-engaging with young people if the Archbishop's worst fears are not to be realised. "The real challenge is to make Jesus matter," he says.

Former rock singer's gospel choir has mass appeal in south Dublin

Leslie Dowdall leads a double life as a singer. In her professional life she is lead vocalist with In Tua Nua, a band that enjoyed success in the 1980s.

But less well publicised is her voluntary role as the leader of the hugely popular Cabinteely Gospel Choir.

On Sundays at St Brigid's Church in the South Dublin suburb, the 12.30pm Mass is packed as Dowdall leads the singing with her rich, melodious voice ringing out over pews, with the backing of a full choir. The choir is accompanied by a saxophone, guitars and drums.

The gospel choir has helped to turn Cabinteely into one of the most vibrant parishes in the Dublin area, and worshippers come from other areas of the city to attend the church.

The choir was already pulling in big crowds before Dowdall took over last year.

"I went to their end-of-year concert and I thought it was brilliant. As I was going out the door, somebody asked me if I would take on the job. I absolutely love it.

"I hadn't been to Mass for years, and now I go every Sunday.

"There's a very nice community spirit and it's a lively parish. The church is full every Sunday."

The repertoire includes rock and pop songs with spiritual themes. They could be songs by Bruce Springsteen, U2 or Beyoncé.

"I would say that I have always been a spiritual rather than a religious person," says the singer who lives in Co Wicklow. "I love churches. No matter what country I'm in, I would always go into a church and light candles.

"I was baptised a Catholic and went through Communion and Confirmation. Then at secondary level, I went to Newtown School, which is Quaker."

The gospel choir is not the only factor drawing in Mass-goers to the South Dublin parish. Earlier on a Sunday, there is a special family Mass in the Mass centre at the nearby St Brigid's girls national school.

"It's full of children and parents, and it's very vibrant. It's totally geared towards families," says parish priest Father Aquinas Duffy.

"Families tend to be attracted to a mass where it is not quite as formal. There's a looseness about it that they like.

"There are a whole range of activities in the pastoral centre with community groups meeting."

Father Duffy says there are 7,000 Catholics in the Cabinteely area, and 800 of them go to Mass at weekends.

At around 14pc, Mass attendance is relatively high compared to many areas in Dublin.

"The missing age group are the 18-to-40s. There a is a large number of people that you never see, apart from at events such as Confirmations, weddings and funerals."

- Kim Bielenberg

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