There’s no doubt that the report on the Archdiocese of Dublin showing a dramatic decline in the number of priests and the number of Catholics attending Mass regularly makes for sobering reading.
Over the past number of years, The Irish Catholic has published several similar statistical analyses and projections – the findings have all been similarly stark. And whilst most people welcomed the contributions as something of a wake-up call, there are sometimes those who dismissed the rationale behind such articles as either dwelling on the negative or being defeatist. It’s as if burying our heads in the sand and talking up the good news stories of the Church in Ireland amounts to some kind of strategy.
Of course, we need to hear the good news stories – and they often act as a shot in the arm when people are feeling weary and tempted to despair, but if we are to face the future with courage we must accept the statistical reality of priestly ministry and Mass attendance in decline.
This is not to say that such decline is terminal or irreversible, but it is the reality for the Church in Ireland at least in the medium-term.
One part of the newly-released research in Dublin that casual observers will find interesting is the fact that the number of people presenting themselves for the sacraments is not projected to decline very much at all. So, while fewer Catholics will participate in the lives of their parishes, they will continue to have their children baptised and make their First Holy Communion and Confirmation.
Ireland’s religious culture is in flux, and it’s hard to put a label on things. But, I wonder to what extent are we moving towards what the British sociologist of religion Grace Davie has described as “believing without belonging”. She uses the phrase to describe a set of people who are not members of parishes per se, they rarely – if ever – attend Mass, but do identify as Catholic and experience the felt need to mark the major moments in life –birth, death, marriage etc. – in the Catholic tradition.
Some people will dismiss this as either mere sentimentalism or seeing the Church as a convenient service-provider for the rites of passage that society deems to be necessary.
Both of these conclusions might be true to some extent, or entirely true in at least in some cases. But we shouldn’t lightly dismiss the idea that the desire for the sacraments is a real expression of faith, however fragile.
In the Gospels, Christ always met people where they were at, but he didn’t leave them there. His call was compassionate and at the same time demanding. The Church in Ireland needs to find a way to reflect this when it comes to the sacraments.
Pope Francis has often spoken about the temptation in the Church to fall in to being too soft –laxity – or too hard – rigidity.
The Church needs to find a way to help families, often with a limited sense of the Faith, explore whether or not the sacraments are important to them and why they would like their children to receive the sacraments. This shouldn’t be a litmus test of how Catholic they are, but it should look at the realistic prospects of the family coming to more actively participate in the life of the local parish.
Of course, the relatively stable projection of those presenting for the sacraments set beside the decline in the number of priests means that the demands on hard-pressed local clergy will escalate dramatically. But the sacraments can awaken in lapsed Catholics a distant, often unconscious, yet powerful memory of something once loved but since lost. It’s an opportunity to re-engage people that is worth taking.