In a pastoral reflection on the future of the Catholic Church last month, one of the church’s newest and youngest bishops, Bishop of Clonfert Michael Duignan (50), pondered the challenges that lie ahead.
“I fear that we might mistakenly think that once the current Covid restrictions are lifted and once we return to public worship, everything will be all right,” said the bishop. Instead, he believes the future will be “very different”.
Some “fear a possible disaster”, he said, with “fewer people practising, financial difficulties, children and families further distanced from the sacraments and congregations permanently migrating to the comfort of online attendance”.
“There may even be a growing realisation that, although much of what we normally do as church was absent these last months, for many people, it was not really missed,” said Bishop Duignan.
Others, he said, speak of the pandemic as simply hastening the decline of the Catholic Church in Irish life, one “that was already quite evident – [but] fast-forwarding it a decade or more”.
In the past, the church tried to “engage with and convert secular society”, he said, but perhaps it was now time “to seriously engage with and convert ourselves and the way we live as a Christian community within that secular society”.
The church should “muster the courage to free ourselves from many of the things we are currently doing that are no longer fruitful and that are, at times, counterproductive”.
“Can we really continue with the number of Masses we have? Can we really keep all our churches open? And what is our future role in Catholic education? Can we continue to act as patron of so many primary schools?”
From Monday, 50 people will be able to gather in churches, mosques or other religious venues, including funerals and weddings, though Catholic Communions and Confirmations are not allowed.
All places of worship stayed open for private prayer during the latest lockdown, so religious venues are already practised in the public health rules needed on sanitising and seating, and so on.
The Catholic Church is the faith most affected by the pandemic because of the emphasis placed on attendance at public worship, which is why it has taken such a heavy blow over the past 15 months, especially financially.
The income of most priests has fallen by a quarter. By last June, the Archdiocese of Dublin’s two main donation streams for priests had dropped by 70 and 80 per cent respectively in just three months.
A voluntary redundancy scheme in the Dublin archdiocese was oversubscribed, with staff cut from 82 to 42, while reduced pay will likely remain for the rest of the year, even with restrictions removed.
The thoughts of Bishop Duignan reflect those of the Archbishop of Dublin, Dermot Farrell, who spoke to parishioners in Churchtown during yet another virtual Mass recently.
The challenge for Catholics now is “to live out” baptismal pledges and appeal to younger people “rather than exhausting ourselves” trying to preserve structures “inherited from another time”, he said.
Highlighting the shortage of priests in the church now and in the years to come, Archbishop Farrell performed his first ordination on Vocations Sunday last month, just his second since he became a bishop in 2018.
The average age of priests in Dublin was now 70, he said in his Churchtown homily: “As bishop, one of the key difficulties I face is not that of having fewer priests, but that of not having younger clergy.”
The Dublin archdiocese has just two studying for the priesthood. Many of his priests are over 75, entitled to retire but continuing to serve “with evident generosity of spirit”.
The Archbishop wondered whether “renewed appreciation of the role of the laity [has] perhaps unintentionally rendered the true role of priest invisible”.
“Forty-two years ago when Pope St John Paul visited Ireland this was not a difficult question. Everyone knew what priesthood was about,” he said, but the same question was less easy to answer when Pope Francis came three years ago.
To plan for the future, Archbishop Farrell has set up a 14-strong group, representing lay men and women and clergy, to scope out “a radical renewal” of the archdiocese. An interim report is expected in June.
Time is passing too in other dioceses. Archbishop of Tuam Michael Neary will retire in April, aged 75. The Bishop of Ferns, Denis Brennan, was 75 last June, while Bishop of Galway Brendan Kelly will be 75 on May 20th.
Successors for each are due in coming months, but it could bring change most of all for Bishop Duignan, who may be moved to the Galway diocese, though one that could be expanded to include Clonfert, the diocese he now leads.