Michael Kelly: 'Church must harness energy of enthusiastic lay people for a new, more active faith experience'
Former Taoiseach John Bruton was in Knock at the weekend to speak about the place of faith in contemporary Ireland. He wasn't the only one at the Co Mayo shrine marking 140 years since a group of local people reported seeing a vision of Mary, the Mother of God. In fact, the local parish priest Fr Richard Gibbons reports that the number of pilgrims and visitors to Knock was up this year on previous years.
Meanwhile, in Co Donegal the penitential island of Lough Derg has seen a steady increase in visitors for the three-day pilgrimage this year. According to the prior, Fr La Flynn, visitors to the island - where people fast, pray and walk barefoot - increased this year "by a few score".
At the same time, organisers of the country's largest Catholic youth festival 'Youth 2000' had to move from their Tipperary base to a bigger venue in Co Kildare to accommodate the record number of young people who wanted to attend the weekend of prayer and reflection.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
So, what's going on? Are anxieties over Brexit causing a return to religion? Has the Church in Ireland finally turned the long-hoped-for corner?
Hardly - the story of Catholicism in this island is still one largely of decline. But, it is also a story of green shoots.
In his remarks at Knock, John Bruton told the thousands of people packed into the basilica that he believes "there is a deep need for faith in every one of us, even in those who have never believed in God or who have ceased to do so".
Even in an Ireland marked by secularism, he told Massgoers, "the enduring hunger for meaning is there still.
"And in the absence of answers, there follows anxiety, depression and a deep sense of being alone. Without transcendent meaning, without faith, life can become a day-to-day trek from one insignificant goalpost to the next," he said.
The enduring popularity of places like Knock and Lough Derg point to a deep reality of faith in Ireland. Even if it is not being practised or adhered to as previous generations did, faith remains an important part of life for many people.
The recent report from The Irish Longitudinal Study of Ageing (Tilda) that older people who attend Mass have better mental health than those who don't, confirms anecdotal evidence that people with faith live happier and healthier lives.
Overall, surveys consistently show that about one in three Irish people attends Mass at least once a week. There are dramatic variances from inner-city Dublin where congregations can be as low as 2pc to provincial towns where attendance can be over 60pc.
What is also interesting is that some of the people one encounters at Knock or Lough Derg would not exactly describe themselves as 'Gospel greedy'. Some are not Massgoers in their own parish, and yet an annual trip to a shrine or a holy well can sometimes be as important as going to see one's team in Croke Park.
What is different now from the past is that Catholics are engaging with the Church very much on their own terms. This is a challenge for the authority of the Church and there is often a huge gulf between what the Church teaches and what Catholics actually believe. A recent survey in the US found that half of Catholics there think the Eucharist is merely symbolic rather than the body and blood of Christ. I suspect many Irish bishops would be fearful that such a survey here would find a broadly similar picture. What has passed for religious education amongst Irish Catholics - despite the valiant efforts of many teachers - has been little more than rote learning in preparation for sacraments.
But if the Church in Ireland faces many challenges, it maintains a huge groundswell of support and goodwill at local level. It struck me at Mass in Co Tyrone last weekend when the local curate announced that he was being moved to a new assignment after five years in the parish. There were tears from some parishioners and people were clearly upset as they greeted him afterwards. Here, I thought, was a man who had become a vital part of the community in such a short space of time and people were going to miss his ministry amongst them.
People see their priests working hard and they appreciate it. That's why when Leo Varadkar indulged in an ill-judged caricature of a 'sinning priest' earlier this year he was roundly criticised by all sides for the cheap shot and had to apologise.
There's no doubting that it's an uphill struggle for the Church. The Co Tyrone parish where I went to Mass was one of the lucky ones - it was getting a newly ordained priest to replace the departing curate. Increasingly, parishes are finding themselves without a resident priest for the first time in centuries. Ireland is fast running out of priests and many parishioners feel ill-equipped to lead liturgies in the absence of a cleric.
The Church needs to put greater focus - and resources - into training willing people to take on leadership roles within the local faith community. We may well have to get used to Mass once a month in some parishes and a service on other Sundays. Many people will miss the shared ritual of the Mass in these circumstances, but there is also an opportunity for people to come together in informal settings and share their faith and lives and give prayerful voice to the needs of the local community. Lively faith communities could then give rise to fresh vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Rumours of the death of the Catholic Church in Ireland have been greatly exaggerated.
If there is a perennial spiritual hunger, then the future of Irish spirituality is assured - it just may be so different from the 1950s version that our grandparents would be unable to recognise it.