It was fitting that it should be reported yesterday, the feast of the birth of St John, that a substantial number of the Catholic bishops now believe the Irish people “have, to all intents and purposes, become pagan.” St John’s Eve is still celebrated with bonfires in parts of Ireland, particularly the West. This tradition is believed to be rooted in an ancient pagan celebration of midsummer which, like so many pre-Christian practices in Ireland, was absorbed into the new faith upon its arrival on the island almost 16 centuries ago.
There is no doubt that attitudes to the churches among Irish people, north and south, have undergone a dramatic change. Despite the findings of recent censuses in the Republic and Northern Ireland that the number of adherents to our four main churches continues to grow, experience in each has been consistently otherwise. Whether it be the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland or the Methodist Church in Ireland the trend has been the same. There strong manifestations of faith yet fewer and fewer people attend religious services or avail of the sacraments while those who do so are very much in older age categories.
At the recent Presbyterian General Assembly in Derry outgoing Moderator Rev Dr Roy Patton observed that while that church's story worldwide, especially in Africa and Asia, "is one of tremendous growth, it is an altogether different story as far as the West is concerned. Here the story is more likely to be one of decline." In a recent interview with this newspaper the President of the Methodist Church Rev Dr Heather Morris disclosed that it had lost almost 7 per cent of its membership in the seven years since 2006. It is clear that organised Christianity as we have known it in Ireland is, if not actually dying, in serious decline. It is intriguing that this is taking place on an island where schools in the main have been controlled for generations by those four main churches, particularly at primary level.