In his first pastoral letter for Advent as Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Dermot Farrell does not hold back. “We are living through dark days. We confront immense challenges, not least that the dominant culture is hostile to faith, while there is much in our story that discourages and even repels many people,” he says.
Those immense challenges are outlined in a report published last week by a group he set up in March to develop a strategy for “radical renewal”. Made up of seven women and seven men, the Building Hope task force consulted widely. What it found is sobering. Within five years there will be 173 priests under 75 (retirement age) serving Dublin’s 1.1 million Catholics in its 197 parishes, with two seminarians currently studying for priesthood in Dublin. The last census (in 2016) found that almost half of Dubliners in the 25-29 age group did not identify as Roman Catholic while a minority of Dublin marriages are now in church.
More than 3,000, mainly lay people, cared enough to make submissions to the task force, expressing strong identity with parishes
The pandemic has added to difficulties. The task force found that restrictions on attendance at Masses had “damaged the financial sustainability of the archdiocese”. Its accounts for 2020 disclosed that its parishes had a deficit of €4.3 million at the end of the year, compared to a surplus of €7.7 million at the end of 2019.
It is hardly surprising then the task force should conclude that in Dublin “many hard decisions cannot be avoided” and that the archdiocese was “at a time of great change”. But there remains hope for those who are committed to the Catholic Church. More than 3,000, mainly lay people, cared enough to make submissions to the task force, expressing strong identity with parishes and a deep concern for inclusion of the disaffected, including women and others hurt by or alienated from the Church.
In his pastoral letter Archbishop Farrell has invited "the whole diocesan family" to take part in discussions early in 2022 on the way ahead and to use this Advent "to prepare ourselves spiritually for the challenge of renewal". All in all, it is a good start by Dublin's new Catholic Archbishop but the future challenge is stark.