The number of Irish people who say they pray every day has increased and presents an opportunity for the Church to grasp, according to experts.
The recently-published European Social Survey 2018 found that while Mass attendance continued to decline, there was an increase of 2.1% in the number of people who say they pray every day compared to 2016 numbers.
Well-known Dominican preacher Fr John Harris OP said the figures reflect an inherent need for the spiritual dimension to life.
“People are realising that there is within the human soul, a deep hunger, and that’s what spirituality is, so how do we now as a Church – rather than putting our hands up in despair – help them to see that. That to me is a challenge,” according to Fr Harris.
He said that it might also be evidence that people “realise the secularised world without God isn’t a very nice place and it’s not answering their questions either”.
“First and foremost what we need to do within Catholicism is to be aware of what our roots are, and what we have to offer. It goes back to a constant point: the lack of catechetics in society is phenomenal.
“The people may reject the Church and how they perceive it to be, but do they really understand or know the depths of the Christian faith?” he asked.
Dr Philip Gonzales, a lecturer in philosophy at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, said the figures about prayer reflect a deeper truth about the human condition. “I think the culture that we live in tries to mute the searching for these kind of spiritual questions, but it’s impossible to completely mute it: it’s still going to manifest itself in different forms of searching.
“I think there’s definitely hope. The hope is that the Church is always able to find ways to do the work of the Holy Spirit to find ways to meet people where they’re at in their own time,” he said.
Dr Gladys Ganiel, a sociologist at Queen’s University Belfast said the revelation about prayer is “quite interesting” and that she is “not entirely surprised”.
“This could be tapping into individualised spiritual practices which we know in other parts of Europe continue even where there has been much steeper declines in institutional religion than in Ireland.
“There could be people who have dropped off going to Mass but are still praying,” she said.
According to Dr Tom Finegan – a theologian at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick – “the only way Christianity will grow is if it becomes more confident: convinced with the basic faith message and starts, instead of accommodating itself and the world around it, to seeks to convert the world around it – going into the world and preaching the Gospel eye to eye with every sinew of conviction and spiritual muster”.
When asked how often they prayed apart from in religious services, over 55% of Irish people surveyed did so once a week, and 33.3% said they did so every day, an increase on 31.2% from the last figures.
However, the percentage of people who said they never prayed also increased, from 17.8% in 2016 to 21.8% in 2018. For those attending religious services once a week or more there’s been a decline, according to the survey, from 36% in 2016 to 29% in 2018.