World Meeting host still ‘astonishingly religious’

The New York Times had a long article Dec. 2 on what it described in the headline as “the demise of the Church” in Ireland. Much has been made of the effects of abuse scandals and a tidal wave of secularism on the faith of the Irish. But, to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of that demise are greatly exaggerated in the light of new research.

According to Stephen Bullivant, a theologian and sociologist of religion, the enduring strength of the Church in Ireland is remarkable.

There also are hopes that the expected visit of Pope Francis for the August 2018 World Meeting of Families will provide a welcome impetus for the renewal of the Church in Ireland and, in particular, a fresh outreach to young people.

Encouraging numbers

Bullivant points to recently released research that he says proves that Ireland remains “astonishingly religious” by the standards of the modern Western world.

Commenting on the release of new figures from the European Social Survey (ESS), Bullivant points out that “Ireland being remarkably religious once you look at any other Western modern nation really does stand out.”

The survey found that in 2016, 36 percent of Irish adults still attended a religious service at least once a week, this figure being only slightly down from the 2014 figure of 37 percent and second only to Poland among the 18 countries surveyed. The ESS, which is one of the biggest surveys of social attitudes across Europe, is conducted every two years.

Bullivant, who is director of the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St. Mary’s University in London, said there are two very different ways of looking at the data.

“If you compare it to Ireland 30 years ago, there’s obviously a significant decline there, but if you compare Ireland to any other modern Western country, it’s astonishingly religious,” he said.

“It’s perfectly natural for people in the Church in Ireland to see decline,” he said. “But from anybody on the outside, the remarkable story is how long Irish religiosity — especially for an Anglophone society — has held up.”

Preparing for the World Meeting

It is against this backdrop that Pope Francis is expected to arrive in Dublin in August to lead the World Meeting of Families.

Dublin-born Cardinal Kevin J. Farrell, who heads the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, said that the pope told him that it was Ireland’s missionary history that had inspired him to choose the country for the upcoming global gathering of Catholic families. “Do you know that I have read that Ireland sent missionaries — I even had Irish priests in Buenos Aires — all over the world? They Christianized many parts of Africa, some parts of Latin America, certainly North America,” the cardinal described Pope Francis as saying.

“We need, Pope Francis said, to ensure that they be part of the revolution of promoting once again marriage and family life in our world today,” the cardinal continued, describing how the pontiff said the situation in Northern Europe was drastic, and that something needed to be done. “That’s why he chose Ireland to be the center of the next gathering of the families,” Cardinal Farrell added in an interview with The Irish Catholic newspaper.

It’s impossible to think of the World Meeting of Families without considering that Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by way of a popular vote in 2015. The first half of 2018 also is likely to see a referendum that could lead to more liberal access to abortion.

‘A joyful experience’

Father Tim Bartlett, who as secretary general of the World Meeting of Families has a key role in the preparations, said that Pope Francis wants parishes to reflect on his document Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) to engage with the challenges facing families in contemporary culture.

This will be the first WMOF since the two Synods of Bishops that reflected on marriage and the family, and the theme for the event, “The Gospel of the Family: Joy for the World,” comes from the opening paragraph of Amoris Laetitia, which Father Bartlett said will be the guiding document for the whole of the preparation period and the event itself.

Father Bartlett said he has “absolutely no doubt that the event will be a positive experience for those who come to it, and a joyful experience of being together,” and he thinks it will “build up people in the sense of faith and solidarity and being part of a universal Church.”

“I hope it will lift people. I hope it will help us to see and engage with the Church universally, and be lifted and encouraged,” he said, “and of course if Pope Francis joins us, that in itself will be a tremendous grace and strengthening and support.”

Engaging the youth

A key task for the Church in Ireland, as elsewhere, is how to engage young people. In a recent speech, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin identified outreach to younger Catholics as “perhaps the most challenging aspect” of Church renewal. A survey of young people’s attitudes on parish life was carried out in the Dublin archdiocese as part of the preparation for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on young people in the Church. The archbishop said “the report was one of the most disappointing documents that I read since becoming archbishop.”

World Meeting at a Glance
◗ Started in 1994 by Pope St. John Paul II, the World Meeting of Families is a major international event that brings together families from across the world every three years to celebrate, pray and reflect upon the central importance of marriage and the family as the cornerstone of our lives, of society and of the Church.

“Young people felt unwelcome in parishes,” he said.

Despite that, Bullivant believes there is grounds for optimism. He points to the European Social Survey data that reveals that even people in Ireland’s least religious age group, those aged 15 to 34, are more likely to adhere to and practice their religion than almost any of their peers in Europe.

U.S.-born Holy Cross Father Bill Dailey also is upbeat about the challenge. He is director of the Notre Dame Newman Centre for Faith and Reason in Dublin, and part of his ministry is to young adults.

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He sees the visit of Pope Francis as an opportunity for the Church to speak about what it teaches in a positive light.

“A lot of the conversations around religion in Ireland in recent years have been about quite grim or at least difficult subjects. We’ve had to face the challenge of dealing with abuse, and a general sense that Catholicism is part of a darker past of Ireland’s mistakes,” Father Dailey said. “The visit of the pope, who emphasizes that Christians must be people who smile, people of hope and people who offer a needed message of mercy and charity, is an opportunity for the Church here to speak more positively to younger generations.”

Michael Kelly writes from Ireland.