Baptisms remain popular as mass attendance declines

Clergy say there is little evidence of baptisms aimed at securing access to schools

Catholic baptisms remain highly popular among parents at a time of declining mass attendance, latest figures show.

The numbers have prompted claims that some parents may be “rushing to the font” to secure access to over-subscribed schools denominational schools.

Member of the clergy, however, say the high rates reflect the deep connection many Catholics still have with the church, even if patterns of worship have changed significantly.

The number of baptisms on the island of Ireland has risen from 64,249 in 2003 to 67,937 in 2013, according to Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae, the Catholic Church's statistics yearbook.


As a proportion of all births on the island - including all religions and none - Catholic baptisms have fallen from about 77 per cent of all births to 73 per cent over the same period.

These figures broadly reflect the falling proportion of Catholics as a share of the overall population in the past decade, even though the number of Catholics has risen.

Paddy Monahan, a barrister and campaigner in favour of equal access to school, said "baptisms of convenience" were inevitable in areas where denominational schools are over-subscribed.

“There’s no question that in Ireland, the safest way for parents to ensure the best educational opportunity for their children is to baptise them,” Mr Monahan said.

About one in five primary schools are over-subscribed, while some 90 per cent remain under Catholic patronage.

Many priests, however, say there is little evidence that parents are opting to baptise their children to access school.

Fr Gerry O'Connor, a parish priest in Cherry Orchard, said baptism rates were extremely high in his parish even though access to over-subscribed schools was not an issue locally.

“It’s a tradition, a ritual. It’s a way of bringing the family together. I think that’s why we’ve an incredibly high turnout for baptisms,” he says.

Rev Dr Niall Coll, a senior lecturer at St Mary's University College Belfast, said the vast bulk of Irish people were still religious, though this was not reflected in the media.

“Many people are still going to church for the high points in life: Christmas, weddings and baptisms,” he said. “They don’t like it when the clergy assumes that because they’re not at mass they’ve rejected the gospel of the church. The reality is much more complex.”

However, Malachi O'Doherty, author of Empty Pulpits: Ireland's retreat from religion, said attendance at religious events was not a good measure of belief and commitment.

“It bothers some of us ardent secularists that our friends and neighbours are giving up their Catholicism so half-heartedly,” he said.

“ The bits they are ditching altogether are the hard bits: going to confession, or entering a religious order, taking a retreat, fasting. But the bits that provide for a little social occasion, like baptism and Communion are still eagerly clung to.”

An Irish Times family values poll earlier this year also indicated a gap between church attendance and baptism.

While up to 93 per cent of parents said they baptised their children, only a third of children were taken to mass regularly.

Regular mass attendance has fallen significantly since the early 1980s, when some parishes recorded rates of up to 90 per cent .

In some of the poorest areas of Dublin, it has fallen as low as 2 per cent, while in more middle-class areas it is between 30 and 40 per cent.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent