Weekly Mass attendances in Dublin’s Catholic archdiocese are projected to drop by a third over the next 15 years, while the number of priests serving in parishes is expected to fall by over 60 per cent to 144 in the same period.
And this is the most optimistic projection. A report prepared for the Dublin Council of priests by external consultants notes that if religious congregations such as the Redemptorists or Jesuits redeploy their priests from parish duties, then Dublin will be left with just 111 priests in 2030 – a drop of 70 per cent.
The analysis, prepared by consultants Towers Watson, also found that 57 per cent of Dublin's priests today are over 60.
It is projected that three-quarters of priests will be over 60 by 2030.
Weekly Mass attendance levels in Dublin are currently put at 20-22 per cent (of the population), while being as low as 2-3 per cent in some working-class parishes.
The Towers Watson report found that between 2008 and 2014 there had been an average annual drop of 3.7 per cent in weekly Mass attendance in Dublin but that this had now slowed.
The two years which saw the greatest decline in attendance were 2009, when the fall was 6.4 per cent, and 2011, when it was 7.4 per cent.
The Ryan and Murphy reports were published in 2009, while the Cloyne report was published in 2011.
Based on existing figures, the Towers Watson report projected that decline in weekly Mass attendance in Dublin would continue falling at an average 2.5 per cent until 2030.
However, the report also found that since 2005 baptisms in Dublin increased by 0.1 per cent over the past 14 years while the increase in Confirmations over the past eight years was 0.8 per cent.
But it noted “some of the strong correlation between baptisms and birth rates” was likely to be due to admissions policies of Catholic schools.
Decline in baptisms
It said that “if this requirement [regarding admission to Catholic schools] is removed at any point prior to 2030, we believe there is likely to be a decline in the number of baptisms each year”.
Should matters remain as they are, the report projects that figures for annual Communions and Confirmations will also remain stable to 2030.
The report found that since 2000 marriage rates in the archdiocese had dropped at an annual rate of 4 per cent.
Again the years which saw the steepest fall in such Catholic marriages were 2009, when the fall was 16.3 per cent, and 2011, when it was 12.7 per cent.
The report projects that the number of such marriages in the archdiocese will continue to fall at an annual average of 4 per cent up to 2030.
Falling Catholic observance, however, is only one part of a religious decline in Ireland.
To paraphrase a line from James Joyce’s short story The Dead, the decline is general all over Ireland for all churches.
The most dramatic fall-off has probably been experienced by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, which also happens to be the largest Protestant denomination in Northern Ireland.
Membership is down 40 per cent since the 1970s. In 1975 that membership was approximately 375,000 across the island.
Today, there are just 230,000 in 545 congregations in its 19 presbyteries, north and south.
Membership dropped by 3,534, or 1,420 families between 2013 and 2014, while the number taking Communion at least once between 2013 and 2014 fell by 1,249.
Baptisms dropped by 111. Nineteen fewer ministers are in service.
Last May, the
Church of Ireland
disclosed the result of a survey which showed that average attendance at its Sunday services in November 2013 was 58,000, representing just 15 per cent of church members.
Deeper analysis of the survey – the first such undertaken by the Church of Ireland – revealed that only 13 per cent of worshippers were aged between 12 and 30.
"Although there were few shocks in what we learnt, it was by any standards a necessary reality check," Church of Ireland primate Archbishop Richard Clarke told the church's general synod in Armagh.
The figures displayed “the scale of the missional challenge ahead of us, but nevertheless it is one that if we cannot embrace with confidence and with hope in Jesus Christ, we may as well close the doors of our churches now”, he said.
In November, the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) revealed that since 1995 the number of Catholic priests in active ministry in Ireland had dropped by 43 per cent, from 3,550 to 2,019.
The survivors are ageing. More than two-thirds are over 55, which broadly reflects the age profile of congregations at Masses, but poses serious questions about the church’s ability to carry out its pastoral role in coming years.
Seventeen seminarians started studying for the priesthood in Maynooth last September – up three on 2014’s intake, but three less than the number who had started the year before.
In all, there are now about 80 men training to become priests at the national seminary. Just 25 years ago, in 1990, that number stood at 525, for the diocesan priesthood alone.
Sometimes, as Fr Stan Mellet of Our Lady of the Assumption parish in Dublin's Ballyfermot said, locals ask for a Mass when a loved one is reposing at home, or in a funeral parlour, unaware that just prayers are said at such times.
“This ‘Mass’ merely involves a few ritual prayers with a decade or two of the rosary. Here in this parish any bit of church prayer is a ‘Mass’. And they are grateful for the ‘Mass’,” he said.
Increasingly, a funeral marks the only link for people who have long since lost touch with the church, ceased to practice the faith and are in an irregular marital situation.
‘A one-off episode’
Most people are “decent, respectful and grateful; they are amazingly unfazed; no embarrassment or apology for the fact that they are unfamiliar with what happens at a Mass these days.
“When to stand and when to kneel at the Mass [have] become necessary instructions,” he wrote on the association’s website.
“For most it’s a one-off episode.”
Fr Brendan Hoban, co-founder of the ACP, said: "Within the space of a few decades, the Catholic Church in Ireland contracted and, in a sense, imploded."
Writing in his Western People column recently, he said: “To date, we’ve given no indication of an ability to do what needs to be done: name the reality, accept it and respond to it.
“As a Church we keep minimising the reality, looking back over our shoulders at a perceived golden age, hoping against hope that the road will soon turn, harking back to the merits of a collapsed scaffolding or organising pious outings in an effort to convince ourselves that nothing has really changed.
“Worst of all, those who should be helping us to accept and deal with the realities of life and of religion in Ireland today don’t seem to have any idea about what we need to do or how to go about it - apart from waffling incoherently about faith and secularism.”