Monday, February 05, 2024

‘Catholic Church in Ireland could wither and die if problems are not addressed’

Decline & Fall

The stark decline of the Catholic Church has pushed dioceses across Ireland to “breaking point” and the next five to 10 years could see parishioners having to preside over funerals and weddings in their own communities, it has been warned.

Michael Kelly, who recently stepped down as editor of the Irish Catholic newspaper, believes the situation is down to a number of factors including the age profile of priests, the fact it takes seven years to train, and the number currently engaged in that process is “very small”.

From Co Tyrone, he has now lived longer in the Republic than in Northern Ireland.

Growing up in the village of Killyclogher, Catholicism always played a central role, with social life revolving around the parish in the shape of missions and concerts.

“Throughout good times and bad times it has served me my whole life and is a bedrock to fall back on and something I’m very grateful to my parents for,” he said.

Ireland in that time has changed dramatically, moving from a culture that was “instinctively Catholic” to one which is “in many ways post-Catholic”.

Mr Kelly explained: “In many parts of Dublin now, Mass attendance is about 3%.

“That is such a dramatic change from my childhood.

“Although, where I’m from in Tyrone, there would still be quite a healthy Mass attendance.

“But the same trends are there as well.”

The Catholic Church was once viewed by many as a spiritual bulwark against the world’s more destructive tendencies, but that puritanical image of Ireland has changed.

The reasons for the decline of the church are complex, but he acknowledged scandals such as historical abuse by priests and nuns was a major factor.

He said: “Catholics are traditionally brought up to spontaneously trust that the church will always be right and the church will always do things correctly and behave in a moral fashion.

“Well, the scandals exposed show that wasn’t the case.

“Not only did you have the abuse itself, which was a terrible betrayal by priests and nuns of the people put in their care, the people who they should be able to trust most in the world.

“But, actually, then you had church leaders who conspired and covered it up.

“To me, that really dealt a mortal blow to the credibility of the church.

“Because, it’s very, very hard to speak about justice if the church itself is not behaving justly.”

None of the churches have contributed any money towards compensation for victims of historical abuse in Northern Ireland.

Victims’ campaigner Jon McCourt recently accused them of “skimping on their responsibility” by trying to avoid payments to those who suffered.

Mr Kelly said redress was “very important” and he would like to see “some prophetic leadership” from the religious orders.

While Mr McCourt suggested the Vatican could step up, Mr Kelly argued although it possessed many priceless artworks, it was cash poor.

He added such decisions would have to be taken at a local level.

Aside from the scandals, he believes secularisation is a factor in a country which has embraced modernity.

Now that little value is placed on spirituality, it has led to a collapse in vocations.

He added: “When I was growing up, Killyclogher had five priests and the neighbouring parish in Omagh had four priests. Now they only have two each.

“That is a real marked drop, and many of the priests that are still serving are men in their 70s, still working hard at a time when many of their peers, brothers or sisters and friends have retired a long time since.

“That is a major challenge and major shift going into the future, because within 10-15 years we’re probably going to be left in a situation on this island where we have a couple of hundred priests.”

In terms of sustaining parishes, he painted a bleak picture.

“That’s going to mean the church can’t be present in the way it was in the past,” he explained,

“That won’t just affect daily committed Mass-goers, this is really going to affect how we do weddings and funerals in future.

“Many people don’t go to Mass but they still want a Catholic wedding or a Catholic funeral.

“The priests just won’t be available to do that.

“We’ll either move to a situation like England, where people are not buried for two or three weeks after they die, or else we’re going to move to a situation where parishioners themselves — local people in the parish — are going to have to preside over the funeral ceremonies.

“I think the second of those scenarios would be better. I’ve never liked the English tradition of people being dead for a few weeks before they’re buried.

“The challenge for the church and parishioners in all of that is to really take ownership of their own faith community.

“I think the question to put to parishioners is: if faith is important to you, if coming together as a community is important to you, then it will survive and you’ll step up to the plate.

“But if it’s not, then it will wither, it will die, and the next 10-20 will see many parishes on the island of Ireland close.”

For example, in Co Kerry there are many parishes without a resident priest, and rely on clergy from other areas.

Mr Kelly added: “You’re looking at a case in the next five to 10 years where it just won’t be possible for everyone who wants a funeral to have it the way they have up to now, certainly not in the traditional three-day timeframe.”

Most dioceses are “already at breaking point” and could be forced to make radical changes.

He is agnostic on the issue of allowing the ordination of married men to ease the pressure.

Celibacy for some priests is a “beautiful gift”, and for others a life without a spouse or children is “lonely — a terrible burden”.

He accepts there are arguments for and against, but believes making celibacy optional is perhaps the answer.

However, he does not see it as a “silver bullet” — Protestant churches are experiencing the same vocational issues and their clergy are allowed to marry.

He believes greater forces are at play as people are no longer spiritually attuned, and we are living in an increasingly materialistic world.

In spite of the cost-of-living crisis, both jurisdictions on the island are “much more prosperous” than a couple of generations ago.

Yet, he pointed to “unhealthy trends”, with more people suffering from poor mental health, surveys showing large numbers of young people who have no friends, and an increase in loneliness.

As a journalist who has lived on both sides of the border, he’s in a good position to compare.

He described the two-year political stalemate at Stormont due to the DUP boycott as “utterly depressing”.

He said the most valuable resource in any society was its young people, but we have been haemorrhaging them “because they don’t see hope there”.

“Older people are maybe more fatalistic about it because they remember worse times and there’s peace now,” he added.

“But peace is more than the absence of war. Young people who grew up after the Good Friday Agreement don’t know the Troubles and also know that not having a functioning government is not normal, along with all the unaddressed issues.”

There is “no genius” to the strong economy in the Republic, based around low corporation tax and prioritising foreign direct investment.

He argued there was no reason it couldn’t be replicated on this side of the border.

Major companies have European headquarters in Dublin, but due to the housing crisis have nowhere for their workers to live.

He suggested, with our cheaper housing market, it would be a more attractive prospect if the economy — and Stormont — was stable.

As someone from west of the Bann who often travels on trains in the Republic, he sees the map of the rail network as illustrative of the “failures” in local politics.

He expanded: “It’s like a barren wasteland.

“And that’s just a sign of the long-term neglect that there has been in areas like the north west, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Derry… the way those services have been run down.

“There is this problem with inward investment that all the talk is around Belfast.

“Northern Ireland is very, very small — there is no reason to prioritise all of the development and growth around the Belfast area.

“There’s a failure from our politicians in the west where they don’t seem to be able to break the stranglehold that the greater Belfast area has on economic investment and development.”

Having led pilgrimages to the Holy Land for the past 15 years, and had to be evacuated when Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, sparking the current round of bloodshed in the region.

Since then Israel has killed over 25,000 people in Gaza, many of them children.

“If you look at an image of Gaza on television now, it’s almost apocalyptic,” he said.

“It’s a dreadful situation and it just perpetuates a cycle of mistrust and hatred between the two communities.

“It has been going on since about 1948.”

As someone with friends on all sides, he believes the root causes have to be addressed.

Long-term peace will only be achieved when both communities have their dignity, and a “safe and secure Israel” can live alongside “an independent and free Palestinian state”.

For him, religion and the Catholic Church still has an integral role to play moving forward.

He points to research showing people who go to church regularly live happier, healthier and longer lives, giving them a “sense of community, common purpose and something outside of themselves”.