Michael Kelly: 'The Christmas story still pulls people to church, comforted and warmed by faith they were born into'
A US priest who is relatively new to Ireland told me recently that if he wears his Roman collar to a social gathering in a bar or a restaurant, one of the most frequent question he gets asked is: "Are you really a priest?" He heroically resists the temptation to answer with some variation of: "In Ireland in 2018, who would really pretend to be a priest?"
More often than not, my priest friend is very quickly being asked to pray for a sick relative or a friend going through a rough time.
It's a scenario I can identify with: at the usual round of Christmas parties journalists attend at this time of year, I invariably get asked - when people have had a few jars - "are you really religious?" It's usually a light-hearted question and I could count on one hand the number of times it has been asked in a sneery way.
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That being said, I used to hate being asked the question. Now I realise it is more often than not a form of genuine interest in things spiritual.
In the 1950s, it was assumed everyone in Ireland was religious to a greater or lesser degree. That's no longer the case and many people - particularly in Dublin - live in a bubble where they don't themselves attend Mass and don't socialise or mix with people who go to Mass except perhaps at Christmas and Easter.
I usually reply to the question with the fact I've never been comfortable describing myself as religious because of the risk of appearing as if one is trying to come across as 'holier than thou'. But I'm certainly not embarrassed to say I have a deep and abiding faith in God and that I pray regularly, even if I'm not as diligent about it as I ought to be.
The conversation then frequently turns towards their memories of being raised a Catholic with the caveat that he or she is no longer a practising Catholic. Maybe I delude myself, but I often detect a hint of sadness at this.
It's almost as if talk of things spiritual reminds people of something that used to be part of their life and no longer is - and part of them misses that.
Like the American priest, I'm also very often asked to say a prayer for a special need, some anxiety over mortgage arrears or a child having a tough time with life.
I think that many cradle Irish Catholics are caught in a bind between not wanting to engage with the institutional Church while at the same time missing the sense of comfort and consolation that belief in God and organised religion offers.
Faith - whether one is a subscriber or not - continues to fascinate people. Quite precisely, I think, because in a world where science seems on the cusp of explaining everything, people still feel the stirring for something deeper, something that cannot be explained by a clever formula.
There's also the fact that in an increasingly fast-paced world, faith offers people the chance to take some time out and recharge their batteries.
All of the various attempts to obliterate religion have failed. I was in Albania recently, the first country in the world to be officially declared an atheist state, in 1967. Churches and mosques were either razed to the ground or turned into sports arenas.
When communism collapsed there almost 25 years later, one of the first things people did was to go to the forests and mountains to retrieve the religious objects they had buried in sure and certain hope of the day they would freely practice their faith again.
Churches in Ireland will be packed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day next week. Many parishes have to put on extra liturgies and there is often standing room only.
What brings people out? Tradition? Habit? Perhaps, but there is also an abiding interest in the story of a God who became small and was born to a bewildered couple in an outhouse at the back of an inn in a provincial outpost of the Roman Empire some 2,000 years ago.
Above all the doctrine and controversies, the core message of Christmas is really quite simple: in a moment in human history, God chose to enter decisively into the drama of the world. He did so not in the way in which people expected it.
The Jews had been waiting on a powerful warrior Messiah who would lead them to freedom; what they got was a defenceless baby.
The story of Christmas is a story of smallness - a story of God choosing what is considered weak to contrast the noisy and ostentatious power of the world with the power of love.
There is something beautiful about seeing a parent stand before the Christmas crib in awkward reverence as their wide-eyed children marvel at the thought of that first Christmas.
The story of the birth of Christ appeals to the child in each of us, but it is more than a timely sentimental tale - it's a reminder that Christians believe in a God who was not content to hide in heaven, but wanted to come and wander the earth and draw people into a relationship with him.
Even when people disengage from the Church, they often still want that relationship. That's part of what brings people back at Christmas - they feel the pull of that message, even if they can't fully articulate why it draws them.
Those of us who go every week might grumble that a newcomer sits in our seat at Midnight Mass, but we secretly love the fact they're there and wish they'd come back next week too.
A cynic once explained his lack of attendance at Mass by his belief there are too many hypocrites in churches. The shrewd old priest replied there's always room for one more.
That's the point - we all fall short of ideals, but the only way not to be a hypocrite is to have no standards.