Nurturing the roots

Siobhán Larkin chf
The reality, or perhaps more accurately, the realities of the Catholic Church in Ireland, is complex, reflecting the culture of the times. Nevertheless, the Church continues to be a strong, identifiable force in Irish life even if, at times, it is not seen as a positive force. What the local, diocesan and national Church has to work towards is determining how this identifiable force can be harnessed in order that ‘the kingdom of God be proclaimed and renewed’.[1] There are many Irish people who identify themselves as Catholic, but whose connection with the Church is tenuous at best. It is the contention of this research that the renewal of the Church in Ireland is most likely to begin at grass roots level, and that it is in the renewal of parish life that the sense of belonging to the community of the Church will be revived.
Grace Davie, writing about the Church of England, uses the phrase ‘Believing without Belonging’ as the subtitle of her book, Religion in Britain since 1945.[2] For increasing numbers of Irish Catholics this seems to be a fair representation of their faith commitment. Davie does not want to make too sharp a distinction between the two positions. She writes,
The terms ‘believing’ and ‘belonging’ are not to be considered too rigidly. The disjunction between them is intended to capture a mood, to suggest an area of enquiry, a way of looking at a problem, not to describe a detailed set of characteristics. [3]
A growing number of Catholics in Ireland today have a minimal connection to the local community. However, trying to sustain a Christian faith without connection to the worshipping community seems neither desirable nor possible in the long term. The figures in the 2008 European Social Survey show that, among the sub-sample of Catholics in Ireland, ‘a large proportion feel themselves to be religious or very religious [84 percent]’.[4] It would seem as though the connection between culture and faith is not lost. This presents the possibility of rebuilding a connection to the local community of Catholics, one which might be instrumental in helping to sustain people in the living out of their Christian lives.
The Church, at national, diocesan and parish levels, is confronted with the task of transforming the deep religious sensibilities of Irish people. The rapidity of change in Irish society and in the Church has made for such a challenging environment that it is difficult for the leadership of the Church to strategize for the future. Factors such as the decline in the number of clergy and in church attendance, clerical scandals and the changing demographic, militate against Church leaders focusing on developing Christian communities. Much of the hierarchy’s energy is devoted to the struggle to maintain the status quo while holding out against unremittingly negative perceptions of the Church and its role in the Ireland of the past.
Throughout Ireland, the vibrancy of some local Catholic parishes is one positive element in enabling people to explore their religious roots in a meaningful way. It is in the local area that connections are made and sustained. The contention of this research is that education, especially at the grass-roots, is a key strategy in bringing about a renewed understanding of and connection to a living, community-based Christian faith. The reinvigoration of the Catholic Church will be dependent on many things. However, with a post-Celtic Tiger population who are highly educated in a secular sense yet often lack a systematic understanding of their Christian roots at an appropriately adult level, the need for religious education seems to be imperative. The issue for the Church is not just its renewal, but building on the strong vein of connection between faith and culture in Irish society. The Church’s mission needs also to be to educate towards a Christian community that is committed to being a positive force in the building up of a more just and more humane society in Ireland and beyond, as a sign of God’s new creation.
One very positive factor in the Catholic Church in Ireland that has received little attention is the presence of lay people who volunteer within their communities. Many of these Catholics are involved in ministry roles within the liturgy, others are leaders in adult faith development for parents of children preparing for the sacraments, while others are involved in their local parishes councils. These are only a few of the roles held by volunteers that are sustaining the local parish community in multiply ways.   It is hard to be precise about the number of people who volunteer within the Catholic community, as there has not been a sustained attempt to gather statistical data about the extent of this vital part of Catholic life.
The only reliable figure comes from the 2006 census. In this census of population, there was a category related to ‘helping or voluntary work in a charity or religious organisation’ alongside questions about involvement in other areas of the voluntary sector. In that census, 2,889,573 people (over 15 years) claimed to be Catholic. One question asked people about their volunteering and specifically in which areas they volunteered including the category of ‘Church’. Using these figures, 113,925 Catholics reported that they volunteered in the Catholic Church.[5] The questions on volunteering[6] were not repeated in the 2012 census, but given that more people actually nominated themselves as Catholic in this census, it is unlikely that the number has decreased to any large extent in that time.[7]
This number represents an army of people who are committed to their local Catholic Communities but who, by and large, have had limited or no formation for the essential roles they are undertaking. This thesis examined this issue from the perspective of people who have responsibility for education in parishes and diocese across Ireland. The insights gained from those interviewed provide a national perspective on the Church in Ireland from the grass roots. It puts the spot light on work that is being done by many committed lay people and suggests that education of this group in particular is imperative if this strong force within the Catholic Church is to be maintained and expanded.
What are the principle suggestions proposed in this thesis as the way forward for the Catholic Church in Ireland

  1. Firstly, it is essential that there is a recognition that the committed lay people are currently a pivotal force in sustaining the Catholic Church in Ireland. Much of what is written and proposed is based on what lay people can do in the future rather than what they are doing right now. Without this army of volunteers the Catholic would completely collapse. Official recognition of the place of lay people in ministry roles in Ireland is essential.
  2. The second essential component for a reinvigorated Church is a sustained and appropriate educational programme for all lay people who are currently undertaking ministry roles in liturgy, education etc, in their local communities. Such education has to be mandated and supported by the diocesan and national Church. The ad hoc nature of the current education provision nationally (with notable exceptions) is based on an increasingly diminishing resource.
  3. The third component is the development and implementation of liturgical ceremonies to officially recognise and mandate the liturgical and education roles undertaken by lay people.[8] Without such official recognition parishes will increasingly be sustained by lay people who lack any official mandate.
  4. Currently the Catholic Church’s major education focus is Catholic Schools; this does not seem to be the effective focus in the light of diminishing numbers attending Mass. At national and diocesan level it is essential that ways of financing the education of adult lay people, particularly those who are undertaking significant roles, is found.

[1]  Ad Gentes, Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity.
[2]  Grace Davie, Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).
[3]   Davie, Religion in Britain since 1945, 93.
[4]   O’Mahony, ‘The European Social Survey’.
[5]   European Commission: Citizenship, ‘Study on Volunteering in the European Union Country Report: Ireland’
[6]   The nature of census questions is such that they tend to be broad and non-specific so what respondents meant by ‘volunteering’ is impossible to determine. But it does indicate that the person’s involvement is more that attendance at the Sunday liturgy.
[7]  3.86m people (84.2%) of people living in Ireland defined themselves as Roman Catholic in April 2011, a decrease on the 87% who did so in 2006. Due to general population increase, however, just less than 180,000 more people defined themselves as Catholic in 2011 than in 2006.
[8] A recent initiative for the establishment of funeral teams is one possible model.

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One Comment

  1. Donal Dorr says:

    Thank you, Siobhán, for this helpful account. I presume that, in your more extended account in your thesis, you have also stressed the importance of having a programme of Christian religious education for children and young people. We can no longer rely exclusively on the schools to provide this, since a significant number of teachers are not active believing Christians.

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