Virus lockdown has increased people’s faith
The challenge of re-opening churches for public Mass should be used as a moment to revitalise parish councils, a leading theologian has said in response to new research which shows increased online and offline prayer and practice.
Prof. Eamonn Conway told The Irish Catholic: “The main positive I see in this report is a renewed openness to and recognition of the need for shared leadership in parish communities.
“This is the time for parish councils to be empowered to offer both spiritual and practical leadership. They can bring so much expertise and wisdom to bear in particular on the practical problems parish communities now face from compliance with hygiene regulations to financial challenges,” he said.
Prof. Conway also warned that because the Sacraments have been rendered “effectively inessential”, it may have exacerbated a sense of low morale amongst priests.
He was commenting on new research from Queen’s University Belfast which revealed that moving worship online has led to an increase in prayer and religious practice. However, the research also found that priests’ morale has been affected by the crisis.
The report – ‘People Still Need Us’ – carried out amongst priests and ministers north and south observed: “An intensification or invigoration of faith, including examples of people praying more and people who had previously demonstrated no interest in faith or religion tuning in to religious services or seeking prayer.”
Prof. Conway said that “Many respondents are uplifted by the fact that religious faith, and by extension they themselves [priests and ministers], are still perceived as relevant to so many people.
“It is understandable, of course, that morale among religious leaders might currently be low because of declining practice rates, an ageing priesthood, the impact of the scandals, secularism and so on,” Prof. Conway said.
However, he warned that “the fact that Church services and Sacraments have, in the public perception, been considered effectively inessential these past couple of months may well have exacerbated a sense of low morale.
“Priests’ lives are dedicated to the selfless service of people face to face and to be with their people in good times and bad. These past few months have been a terrible interruption in that regard. So, of course it is heartening to hear that ‘people stilll need us’.
“At the same time, a word of caution: it is not the level of public demand for our services as religious leaders that renders us or, more importantly, the message we bear ‘relevant’ but that message itself, namely, God’s unconditional love revealed in Jesus Christ. It is important that we don’t forget that,” he said.
Dr Ganiel believes that the survey indicates a renewal in faith. “You don’t know how deeply people are engaging with the online content, but…when you have the surveys and leaders writing in multiple answers like that, it suggests an increased interest in religion evidenced by more people tuning in online than went to church.”