Challenge to re-engage young adults in faith

I had occasion to be in radio studios over the weekend with Oireachtas members from Fianna Fáil, the Labour party and Sinn Féin. One of the subjects was a poll conducted by the Sunday Independent and Today FM on the attitudes of Irish people in their 30s towards morality in general and religion in particular.

Now, politicians will frequently talk about the need for separation of Church and State – which they usually interpret in a very narrow sense to mean that people of faith ought not to have a public opinion on issues that affect the country. This, however, never stops politicians expressing their views on what the Church needs to do. Perhaps this is a good thing: whether practising their faith or not, most Irish people have enough residual Catholicism to take an interest in the Church. Of course, this can sometimes present itself tediously as uninformed wittering, but even in the midst of this there is a fundamental relationship with the Church that needs to be explored.


Pope Francis has a remarkable ability to capture the imagination. People who have long-since checked out of the Catholic world find themselves looking again at the Church in a new way. What some people are calling the ‘Francis effect’ is a moment for people to look at the Church with new eyes. This is a moment which should not be lost.

‘The Church in Ireland is in crisis’ has become a truism. But, the crisis in the Church here is part of a complex reality and stands beside the fact that in parishes and communities up and down the country people are working hard for the renewal of the Church. We must be careful not to allow the difficulties in the Church to create paralysis: the problems are there, to be sure, but Christians are defined more by reaction to a crisis of faith than by the crisis itself.

Impressive figure

The weekend survey found that 19% of Irish people in their 30s go to Mass at least once a month. That’s one-in-five people in that generation who do so and it’s an impressive figure. In large parts of Europe Mass attendance amongst this age group is in single figures. When it comes to the issue of having children baptised, 65% – almost two thirds – of 30-somethings said they would initiate their child in the Catholic faith.

It’s 21 years since the Bishop Eamon Casey scandal broke and 18 years since the first episode of Father Ted was broadcast. Most of today’s 30-somethings have never known the Catholic Church outside of scandal or as a subject of public ridicule and satire…and yet a remarkable number of them would still choose to have their children baptised into the Catholic Faith.


I don’t for one minute minimise the difficulties that the Church in Ireland is facing and will continue to face. Nor do I believe it is an absolute certainty that the Faith will survive in Ireland. But what the survey shows is that there is all to play for.

Many young Irish people maintain an attachment for the Church. The challenge is to move that from attachment to engagement. We can be sure of one thing: a Church that is petty, squabbling and obsessed with itself rather than its mission will continue to decline.

Pope Francis is showing us a way to engage afresh with young people. It will require the ability to meet people in the midst of an often fragile faith and lead them to rekindle an authentic relationship with God. From such a relationship will flow the renewal of both the Church and the wider society.