| 9°C Dublin

Church's challenge is to teach basic faith

The start of the week-long Eucharistic Congress is only two days away. Expectations have been carefully and rightly managed so that no one is under any illusion that it will remotely compare with the Eucharistic Congress of 1932, which effectively merged Irish identity with Catholic identity.

Today, 80 years later, we are more a country that is trying to purge its identity of Catholic influence, just as, back in 1932, we tried to purge it of British influence. For aggressive nationalism back then, read aggressive secularism today.

This week, most of us were happy to see Britain celebrate Queen Elizabeth's diamond jubilee. Relations between Britain and Ireland have normalised and some of us even wonder whether we'd be better off, if push comes to shove, leaving the euro and joining sterling.

Maybe, one day, relations between the Irish State and Catholicism, and Irish society and Catholicism, will normalise again. One day, but not yet, and certainly not with this Government in power. It is to the church what Dev was to Britain.

So this Eucharistic Congress should not be seen first and foremost as an indicator of the state of relations between church and State and church and society, it should instead be seen as an indicator of the health of Irish Catholicism itself.

In Britain, relations between the Catholic Church and the state are on the whole very good, probably the best in many years. British Catholicism has to make its way in a very secular society, but that society is mostly indifferent to it, and is only sometimes hostile.

But this doesn't necessarily mean that British Catholicism is itself in a healthy state. What are levels of Mass attendance? What is the quality of leadership? What do Catholics actually believe?

Likewise, here in Ireland. We could fast-forward another 20 years and find that church/State relations had normalised and that much of the overt hostility on display towards the church had abated, but find that Catholicism itself was in a feeble condition.

Maybe weekly Mass attendance by then will have plunged to 15 or 20pc, and Catholics in 2032 will know even less about their faith than Catholics today.

Currently, about a third of Irish Catholics attend Mass each week. About another 15pc go roughly once a month.

A recent poll commissioned by the Association of Catholic Priests found that many Catholics are at odds with their church on a whole range of issues.

That would be one thing if most of those Catholics had gone out of their way to find out why the church requires priests to be celibate, or opposes women's ordination, and then, after much thought, came to a different conclusion.

But the sad fact is that a growing number of people don't even know what the church believes, let alone why it holds those beliefs.

For example, a poll published this week by the 'Irish Times' found that only a quarter of Irish Catholics believe in transubstantiation, meaning the bread and wine become the literal body and blood of Christ during the Mass.

Is it the case that they have considered this belief carefully and have rejected it? Or is it that they don't even know this is what they are supposed to believe?

Given that the Eucharistic Congress is centred on the Eucharist -- that is, on the body and blood of Christ -- it means that 75pc of self-professed Irish Catholics don't even have the faintest appreciation of what the congress is all about, except that it is some kind of religious event.

This is disastrous. Commenting on the finding of the poll -- which came as no surprise whatever -- Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras said in Maynooth that "many people are not catechised enough to know about the mystery of the Eucharist".

(It suddenly occurs to me that a lot of people probably don't know what 'catechised' means either. It means education in the faith).

What the cardinal said is both true and damning, and doubly damning when we think that the vast majority of Irish people have attended Catholic schools.

How can they possibly go through 14 years of Catholic education and come out the other end not knowing the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist? The reason is that they're not really taught it. More commonly, they're taught that Holy Communion is simply 'holy bread'.

If more Catholics had a proper understanding of the Eucharist and its central place in their religion, far more would want to attend this congress. They'd want to attend it in the same way that Muslims want to go to Mecca.

So the challenge facing the church in Ireland is both hugely simple and hugely challenging: teach ordinary Catholics the basics of their faith again.

The inescapable conclusion is that the Eucharistic Congress will be taking place in a faith vacuum. The congress has to begin the task of filling that vacuum again.

Irish Independent