Never less cause for celebration with just a third of Catholics attending weekly Mass
ANALYSIS: A recent survey reveals some startling facts about the faithful in modern Ireland
A FEW months ago, at a large funeral in a mid-western Irish town for a devout, much-loved 88-year-old family man, his 13 handsome, 20- and 30-something grandchildren brought joy and life to the occasion. The one thing they failed to bring was a knowledge of basic Mass etiquette. Throughout the consecration, oblivious to the bowed and kneeling congregation behind them, all 13 remained seated, exchanging the odd friendly word. Then they all trooped solemnly up for Communion.
It generated some quiet exchanges afterwards. The local priest said cheerfully that all were welcome in his church, regardless of their knowledge or devotion – “sure, isn’t that what we’re here for?” A visiting priest remarked mildly that “nearly all Irish Catholics were infantilised – their spiritual development was arrested back around First Communion time”.
A 50-something layman shrugged and said : “They’re gone in any meaningful sense. They’ll turn up in church because they know their grandad would have wanted it and they like the sense of community it gives them – but do they really believe in any of it anymore . . . ?”
We have some of the answers now. The 13 grandchildren had forgotten that transubstantiation – the belief that bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ during Mass – is a core tenet of the Catholic faith, but they’re not unusual. Two-thirds of Irish Catholics in this survey believe that what happens at Mass is not transubstantiation, but merely symbolic – that the bread and wine only represents the body and blood of Christ. Which means they have forgotten or chosen to reject everything they solemnly ingested at First Communion.
Once the 12 per cent of don’t knows are eliminated, the startling fact is just a quarter of Irish Catholics believe what they recite in the Creed. And there is little comfort for church figures in the breakdown of age or Mass attendance. Even among weekly Mass-goers and/or those over 65, precisely half believe that what happens is merely symbolic.
How many Irish Catholics still go to Mass? About a third attend once a week or more; another 8 per cent once a fortnight. Another 20 per cent ramble in to Mass between every three to four weeks and three months.
The interesting part is that 18 per cent say they rarely or never attend and they’re not just the grandchildren. Half of them are over 34. As always with religious practice in Ireland, location is significant. An urban Catholic is only half as likely as a rural one to go to Mass, and is also more likely to be a male who votes Green, Independent, Sinn Féin or Labour, in that order.
At the opposite end, are the third of Catholics who attend Mass once a week or more. At its simplest, this is more likely to be a working-class woman, aged over 65, from Connacht/Ulster, who votes Fianna Fáil or – less likely – Fine Gael.