Church leadership has to change to be seen

Church leadership has to change to be seen Worshippers wait for Pope Francis to celebrate Mass at Phoenix Park in Dublin, August 2018. The aging profile of the Church in Ireland is a reality that must be addressed. Photo: CNS/ Paul Haring
An ailing Church needs to be bold if it’s to return to leadership, hears Jason Osborne

The Church in Ireland has been ailing for some time, and the results of the 2021 LIFT index ought to provide the Faithful with food for thought.

LIFT Ireland – an initiative to develop the level of leadership nationwide – polled 1,000 members of the public on their attitudes towards leadership standards and asked them to rank the sectors and professions they believed demonstrated good leadership over the past year.

While it’s of note that healthcare professionals were perceived as having demonstrated the greatest levels of solid leadership, of more interest to the Church is the fact that faith-based groups received the lowest rating, with 4% of respondents stating they demonstrated good leadership. This sat just below politicians, with 5% of respondents considering their leadership to be adequate.

Speaking to The Irish Catholic, UCD Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Tom Inglis offered some thoughts as to the societal changes taking place which have seen the Church relegated to a back-seat.

“For most of the heyday of the Catholic Church, there was a big, if you like, buy-in to that – buying into the Church’s explanation of the meaning of life, and the Church’s models as to how to live a good life. It was basically unquestioned, and it was part of the air they breathed each day. It was shared, it was almost universal, it was unquestioned and that went on for ages. Then it began – that hard shell began to fragment. Now it fragmented primarily through, if you like, the homogeneity and isolation of Catholic Ireland, that began to be eroded by the forces of globalisation, secularisation, the media, the market and so forth. That led to that hard shell being cracked. The problem was that inside that hard shell there wasn’t really a very strong yoke based on reading.”


“To me, a lot of Irish Catholics have continued to, for a sizeable minority, I would say around a third go to Mass once a week, but of those, I think a lot of that is about tradition and a lot of it is about identity and a lot of it is about cultural heritage. It’s part of what they grew up with and in the same way as there are rituals of Christmas and Easter and their old rituals of going to Mass as a way of bounding family. While that was happening, while those rituals were maintained, there was a fragmentation of belief in the sense that the certainty of life after death began to, certainly in relation to Hell, began to fragment. Then the certainty of what life after death was, what Heaven was, what happened in Heaven, who got into Heaven – and then even, down to things like the divinity of Christ – those had been completely unquestioned and now, if you like, those doubts became – they grew and became more intense.”

If doubt played a role in the decline of the Church’s influence in Ireland, then certainty has played a role in the replacement of the Church as the ‘voice of authority’ in Irish society. Dr Inglis suggests that, in the specific context of the pandemic, scientists have filled the void that the Church left in terms of offering an understanding of the world.

“There was nobody that even came close to something like Professor Luke O’Neill. So, he became, if you like, the prophet. He became the guru who would explain all of this and so, if you like, science went up enormously in people’s knowledge and understanding and awareness of science, and religion, in terms of providing an understanding and explanation, went down. In a way, I was even taken aback by, if you like, the lack of presence of faith leaders, generally, in saying something relevant and meaningful that would provide comfort and consolation to those really hit, and most of us were hit.”


Analysing the downfall of the Church’s influence in Ireland as the product of a habitual faith that was exposed to eroding forces and creeping doubts prompts the question; if the Church used to serve as a hub of community, what has taken its place? Dr Eugene Duffy of Mary Immaculate College believes, perhaps surprisingly, that the GAA has usurped the Church’s role as the social centre.

“I’m struck by the fact that I think its role has been replaced by the GAA in many situations. While a lot of good work was done by voluntary groups obviously, Church-based groups as such, during the pandemic, I would think the GAA did tremendous work in the kind of social outreach.

“For example, doing messages, or doing the shopping, or looking in on elderly people, maybe collecting and delivering prescriptions, that kind of thing. I don’t think that Church groups were as prominent as one might expect. One of the reasons I think is that our pastoral councils maybe are not functioning as well as they might. In other words, pastoral councils are maybe more inward looking in terms of ecclesial life so for example, they will help in organising liturgical events and things that happen immediately around the church building as such. But in terms of the active, outward focus, in terms of charitable works to use that phrase; our social outreach may be better. They’re not as strong, generally speaking. Obviously, there are exceptions to that, but they’re not maybe as proactive in that regard as they might be,” Dr Duffy says.

Dr Inglis echoed this sentiment, saying:

“Well, I’m living in – I lived all my life in Dublin and I’ve retired and I’m living outside Cootehall which is in Roscommon, and when the pandemic struck, there’s a fairly vibrant parish in Cootehall, but when the pandemic struck, it was the local GAA club who organised and they were the ones who organised deliveries for those people who couldn’t get into the supermarket. They would do shopping. But it’s not only that – ok, there’s a level of attendance at Mass on Sunday’s – I’d say it’s close to the national rural average, which is probably around 40%, but the GAA club has huge attendance, and that’s because it’s linked into the schools and all the parents who would bring their children increasingly to the GAA. Therefore, and I’ve written about this elsewhere, but in terms of bonding and belonging, I think that throughout Ireland, particularly in rural areas, the GAA has surpassed the Church.”

The GAA’s dominance at a local level has in many cases rendered the parish obsolete, but it wasn’t always the way. Dr Duffy explained the original unitive purpose the parish structure used to serve.

“I suppose looking at it more from a rural perspective, parish identity in this country has – historically, while the parishes were, if you like, revived in the early/mid-19th century, their identity was bolstered by a whole lot of factors. Once the parish church was built, other things built around it, like the post office, the RIC barracks, the creamery, then the Gaelic League and the GAA and so on, used the parish as its most fundamental unit or cell. All of these things helped to bolster up the parish identity right through the 19th and well into the 20th century. Now I think the Church’s position in that has faded and probably most of the other features as well aren’t nearly as significant as they were because people are so mobile, so therefore they’re not congregating in the same kind of concentrated way. But, the GAA I think has trumped the Church as the organisation which gives that territorial unity, its identity. I think it’s fair to say.”

Social leg

With the GAA providing much of the social leg-work in Ireland, Faith leaders, both lay and religious, have many questions and problems to address if they are to attract people back to the pews. Dr Inglis believes one of the factors which allows the Church to retain people is the lack of alternatives for marking important moments in life – a weak thing for the Church to rely on.

“That question as to whether sport is replacing religion, and specifically is the GAA replacing the Catholic Church…At the level of a sense of community, a sense of bonding and belonging, definitely. And I think that the GAA, it used to be quasi-religious, but now it’s quite secular. And indeed, there’s, you know, the Church used to go bananas when the GAA started organising matches or training on Sunday morning, which was competition, but that competition is even gone.

“But still, there is a, you know, ok, less than half of weddings are now in church – I don’t think that’s going to happen with funerals, and still there will be confirmation and communions, but I think the engagement in those rituals is still embedded, particularly in rural communities, and they will survive, mainly because nobody has come up with an alternative. I mean, if a loved one dies, try, in this area, to organise a funeral, in non-pandemic times – I mean the Church still has a monopoly over major rituals – it quite rapidly lost the wedding one. But also when it comes to those rituals of transitions, of Communion and Confirmation – nobody has come up with an alternative to those. Families, they’re either too busy or too lazy to think of organising something else. But certainly, in times of tragedy and death, I mean, in rural areas to find a celebrant to provide a non-denominational grave and organising crematoriums, it’s very difficult,” Dr Inglis says.

If the Church is to move beyond mere survival and begin to thrive, Dr Duffy believes a couple of steps have to be taken.


“I think one of the issues we have to seriously address is the issue of faith formation. That’s an issue. I think we have, by the appointment of bishops generally, we’ve got poor leadership. People are not appointed to those posts by virtue of their capacity for leadership, au contraire. I think we are genuinely, not just being cynical in saying that, I think we are reaping the harvest of that. Safe people, who are not going to disturb the status quo and therefore aren’t going to generate initiatives that are imaginative, creative, they’re not risk-takers and we’ll have to be prepared to take risks. The current Pope says we’re much better doing something and making a mess than doing nothing, and I mean that’s where we’ve landed ourselves with the kind of leadership we’ve got. That’s certainly a major factor.

“I think there is a lack of faith formation for people for leadership roles and that’s across the board. You find it in the education sector and you find it in the parish. Parishes as well. Diminished capacity for leadership or leadership qualities. I think there’s need for serious formation there.”

As well as this, the Church of the future is going to have to be “smaller” and more “intentional”:

“I think we’re going to have to look maybe at concentrating on smaller units and forming more intimate faith communities in a way, smaller faith communities, more intentional communities, more intentional faith communities. And I don’t know at what level you might organise those. I think the parish still has a certain usefulness probably for something like that – it still has an identity, even though it’s not the Church that’s giving it the primary identity right now. But nevertheless, it is certainly in the rural part of the country an identifiable territorial area, so probably within that you’d have to do some of your organisation.”


“The other side of it though is in terms of maintaining the whole parish edifice that we have there, including the church and local priests and presbytery and all that – that’s not going to last much longer because we’re simply not going to be able to afford it and the population, certainly in rural Ireland, is going to be too small to support them realistically. They couldn’t even be expected to support what we have there as an infrastructure. That’s going to be a painful process. Talk about divesting of schools – I mean, we must start divesting ourselves of some of these churches….I think we’re going to have to look at smaller, intentional communities, and we’re going to have to give far more attention to the word of God. To scripture-based prayer and reflection. And I think out of that, we build up the liturgy. We’ve put too much emphasis, I think, on the liturgical life at the expense of basic faith formation, basic evangelisation and catechesis that needs to go on. That has been very badly neglected.”

The neglect of faith formation, evangelisation and catechesis is wrapped up in an over-emphasis on liturgy as the sole heart of the Catholic Faith – a notion which Dr Duffy believes to be mistaken. “I think the pandemic has accentuated this problem, which is that our identity with being Christian or being Catholic is more around liturgical life than the broader issues of witnessing to our Faith in terms of values and social commitment and so on,” he says.

With the Church’s leadership and position in serious doubt in Ireland, faith leaders will have to be bold in offering a sense of meaning, purpose and community, as well as in their efforts to restructure the Church for effective evangelisation in the world of today.