Once upon a time, Ireland was a Catholic country. This tragic state of affairs is now, thankfully, a thing of the past and Irish society is so much better for it.
This only slightly parodic version of the changes in Irish society reflects a popular narrative of the inexorable decline of Irish Catholicism. The trend has allegedly only been accelerated by the pandemic.
Certainly, Holy Week ceremonies and Easter Sunday liturgies this week will be well attended but that is interpreted as evidence of residual habit rather than of any real life-changing commitment.
For the most part, religious adherence is measured by what is easiest to measure – church attendance, daily prayer, and adherence to certain core teachings, particularly in morality.
One of the interesting by-products for at least some Catholics of the recent synodal process was discovering that belief is still central to many people's lives
While declining numbers, fewer vocations and ageing congregations are all real, they do not tell the full story.
There is a popular slogan: “If you can see it, you can be it.”
The reverse is also true, including of religion. If people see only a negative portrayal of believers, or no portrayal, it often affects church members too, who may accept society’s portrayal at face value.
One of the interesting by-products for at least some Catholics of the recent synodal process was discovering that belief is still central to many people’s lives.
If you just said "synodal what?" so did many Catholics. Pope Francis launched a two-year consultation process of the faithful last May, due to culminate in an international synod of bishops in 2023.
“Synodal process” is not exactly a phrase that trips off the tongue. Most Irish Catholics had no notion of what might be involved. It was grimly amusing to see older Catholics, widely acknowledged to be the church’s backbone, assuming that it was for younger people. Meanwhile, the younger people assumed it would have little to do with them.
Religious faith in Ireland tends to be privatised. People rarely if ever get a chance to gather to talk about what they believe and why they believe it
The Irish bishops described it as a process of asking what God wants of the Catholic Church worldwide at this point in history, which, frankly, did not clear things up much. In practical terms, it meant gathering parish groups to listen to their joys and sorrows regarding the church, and their hopes and fears for it.
In some places, it was simply a questionnaire left at the back of the church, which generated, predictably, little interest. Some dioceses had already recently held what they termed listening processes or synods. Some dioceses did not invest much effort at all.
Other dioceses, including the Dublin archdiocese, made strenuous efforts to include as many people as possible. Initial reactions ranged from bewilderment about what it all meant to scepticism about whether this would be another pointless talking shop. Nevertheless, it seems that most parishes that gathered people in person found it a positive experience.
Religious faith in Ireland tends to be privatised. People rarely if ever get a chance to gather to talk about what they believe and why they believe it. Simply spending time discussing these matters led to a stronger sense of community among those who took part. Whatever the eventual outcome of the synodal process, it has achieved something important already.
Significant divisions emerged but the divide between those who wanted little change and those who were afraid no change at all would result was less when people met in person. They had more in common than divided them, including appreciation for the way the church works with the poor and nurtures a non-consumerist spirituality.
During the synodal process, some people also discovered things about their own parishes. For example, one parish that I know of has a thriving youth group that grew out of a programme run for confirmation candidates. The young teens asked to continue meeting.
There is an overworked and under-staffed communications office at the national level but at the local level, communication can be very patchy indeed
The mammies who originally ran the programme roped in their own older teenage children and their friends to help, and five years later, despite Covid-19, there are about 40 teens still involved, with a new cohort joining every year. This was news to a lot of parishioners in the parish where it is happening. Sure, it had been in the newsletter but that is not enough.
How odd is it that it took a synodal process for local people to know that they have something that is the envy of other parishes? Not to know about a thriving youth group run by young people for other young people, where there are more boys than girls involved?
The irony is that a church founded on a mandate to share the good news is actually really, really bad at doing that for its own members, much less for the outside world.
There is an overworked and under-staffed communications office at the national level but at the local level, communication can be very patchy indeed.
It would be a tremendous service to the church (and, indeed, churches as there is no reason this should not be ecumenical) if an online portal existed, a kind of how-to-begin manual for ventures such as the youth group. It would encourage other groups to try something positive. It would also make the good news visible, which, after all, was supposed to be part of the original mandate. Happy Easter.