Monday, February 19, 2024

Young Catholics seek to build a renewed Church in a secular Ireland

Since its foundation in 1795, 11,000 priests have been ordained at St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, many of whom went on to serve as missionaries across the world.

Much has changed; it was reported last year that only 20 seminarians were studying there. 

However, on March 16th, hundreds of young Catholics will gather in Maynooth for a kind of event which is becoming a feature of the new Church developing against the backdrop of a secular Ireland.

Evangelium Ireland’s stated purpose is to help young Catholics to deepen their knowledge of their faith. To this end, they organise regular events featuring lectures and workshops for Catholics.

Evangelium’s annual Apologetics Conference will include talks on marriage, the priesthood and theology, along with interactive workshops allowing for open discussion on hot topics.

Among the speakers will be Professor Vincent Twomey and the Maynooth lecturers Dr. Gaven Kerr and Dr. Julia Meszaros, while the well-known priest Fr. Brendan Kilcoyne will be providing a workshop on ‘St. Patrick, an Uneasy Hero,’ on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day.

Public Relations Officer for Evangelium Ireland, James Bradshaw, said that the growing numbers attending Evangelium events showed the increased interest which exists among young people in Ireland.

“Evangelium is for every young Catholic who wants to learn more in the company of others just like them. It is educational and social,” Bradshaw said.

“There is a real hunger for knowledge, at a time when the secular world is not providing answers. People who attend our events come from all walks of life, including people who were away from Mass for a long time or who came from non-practising homes, Catholics from other countries and those who are now involved in a range of new groups and movements within the Church,” he said.

Recent developments suggest that similar catechetical events outside of traditional classroom settings are soon going to be more common.

There have been ongoing calls to reduce the number of Catholic schools or even eliminate Catholic education entirely. 

Last year, the Education Minister Norma Foley unveiled plans to reduce the amount of time being dedicated to religion in primary schools.

The scale of Ireland’s dramatic secularisation is particularly obvious among younger age cohorts. Census 2022 showed that just 53% of people aged 25-29 now describe themselves as Catholic.

The same Census also showed that just 53% of Dubliners are self-identified Catholics. To give an idea of the scale of the capital’s secularism, in the area of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, almost a quarter of the population now say they have no religion.

It is therefore perhaps strange that Dublin and the surrounding region is at the centre of the development of an especially vibrant Catholic subculture.

Part of this relates to immigration. 

Almost one in five Dubliners are non-Irish citizens, many of whom come from countries where secularism has not gained as much ground.

Many Catholic youth groups derive much of their strength from new arrivals. These include the growing Jesus Youth movement (whose growth has gone hand-in-hand with the influx of Indian Catholics, who make up almost a quarter of the burgeoning Indian population here) and the Rathmines-based Hakuna group for Spanish-speaking Catholics.

One such group belongs to the Shalom Catholic Community, based in Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral. 

Founded in Brazil in the 1980s, the Shalom charism now extends to over 30 countries. In 2018, the Charismatic New Community was established in Dublin with two lay missionaries – a number which has since grown to ten.

The community plays an important role in the Sunday evening Mass in the Pro Cathedral, after which they hold their weekly prayer group meeting.

According to the Shalom missionary Rafael Segovia, 2023 represented a breakthrough year for the group.

“As we are located in Dublin, our focus is to be completely immersed in Irish culture, however as our charisma is international we are open to all people who are seeking God. Currently we have about 12 nationalities: Irish, English, Indian, Italian, Mexican, Brazilian, Polish, Slovak, Egyptian, Salvadoran, Lithuanian and French,” Segovia said.

Shalom is not the only community which attracts young Catholics drawn to a more charismatic form of religious worship.

Living Water, whose weekly gatherings take place in St. Teresa’s Church just off Grafton Street, has been in existence for a decade.

Following on from the interruption in the group’s activities due to Covid, Committee member Ryan Clear said that they have recently seen considerable growth in the numbers attending their Wednesday night prayer meetings.

One of the group’s best known activities is the eight week Transformer course, the last of which took place in 2022 and attracted over 100 people. “The overall goal of the Transformer course,” Living Water core team member Ryan Clear said, “is to help people to make more space for the Holy Spirit in our lives.”

Dublin is also home to a number of traditionalist Catholic groups such as the recently-established St. Colmcille’s Society.

Aside from differences in the form of spirituality, there is a growing diversity within Catholic youth movements responding to the needs and interests of younger generations.

One particular example of this is the Beloved group for young women. The group organises regular meet-ups, social and faith formation events in Dublin as well as Belfast, Cork and Galway.

As tends to be the case with groups dedicated to youth ministry, Beloved’s calendar of events includes opportunities for social outreach as well as weekend retreats and even trips abroad.

Beloved CEO Catherine McMahon said she believed that any Catholic woman in her 20s or 30s who is seeking to grow in faith along with her contemporaries will find a community in Beloved.

“I am hopeful of the future for young Catholics in Ireland. I have been in youth ministry for several years, and I have seen a shift in recent years among people of greater desire and purpose to seek meaning and community. Young people want to have meaningful conversations. They want to know about the faith and are earnest to grow in it. I see groups like Beloved, Shalom, Pure in Heart, Youth2000 and others as torches of hope that can reignite the life of parishes,” she said.

Naturally, a major part of Dublin’s social and spiritual offering for young men and women revolves around college chaplaincy.

Even in its most religiously observant phase, Ireland stood out amongst Catholic European countries due to the absence of a specifically Catholic university.

In 2019, the reluctance of University College Dublin to send a representative to the canonisation of their own founding rector, John Henry Newman, was interpreted by many as a sign of academic indifference or even hostility towards Catholicism.

Although honouring Newman’s memory may not be high on the UCD leadership’s list of priorities, Newman’s name still lives on in Belfield and beyond.

Every Monday, the UCD Newman Catholic Society gathers together. These events feature a short talk, a shared meal, student-led prayer as well as some social time.

The Society’s Speaker Coordinator, Heather Kamataris, said that participation has increased year-on-year, adding that Newman now includes 254 registered members, representing a membership increase of almost 60% in just one year. Up to 80 students attend Monday evening meet-ups: up from an average figure of around 20 attendees prior to 2020.

All of the aforementioned groups which cater to the needs of young Catholics in Dublin share one obvious similarity – they are not parishes.

The more than 1,300 Catholic parishes in Ireland continue to be the centres of religious worship and instruction in Ireland, but there are clear signs that this is changing.

Declining numbers of Massgoers and the looming retirement of large numbers of Irish priests now in their 60s and 70s suggests that major changes may soon be necessary.

Many parishes across the country will eventually not have a parish priest. Catholics will have to travel further to attend Mass or to access a Catholic education in the future, and the religious social life which previously centred on parishes may need to take place in different ways.

However, there has been some good news for the Church recently. Fifteen new seminarians began their studies for the priesthood in 2023: up significantly from previous years. There was also a significant increase in the number of young men who attended the ‘Come and See’ weekend which took place in Maynooth in November.

Evangelium Ireland’s James Bradshaw said that the continuous growth of Evangelium Ireland’s events not only showed the eagerness of young Catholics to learn, it also pointed to the possibilities for the wider Church in Ireland.

“Year on year, we are seeing more people coming from across Ireland to attend. In 2019, the annual conference attracted 90 people. That increased to 130 when we returned after Covid in 2022, and then 150 last year.

“Those who come to Maynooth on March 16th can be part of one of the largest gatherings like this that has taken place in Ireland in recent times, and they can be part of something much wider still,” he said.