Archbishop of Dublin
Saint Mary’s Haddington Road, 16th November 2017
Where will the Church in Dublin be in ten years time? The first thing that I must say is that I am neither a fortune-teller nor an inspired prophet and my reflections will therefore have a substantial margin of error risk. The only absolutely secure thing I can say about the Church in Dublin in 2027 is that it will have a different Archbishop. I will reach the retirement age of seventy-five in a little over two years time.
What do the statistics tell us? Let me say from the outset that I have consistently stressed two aspects of the current situation. I have collected and collated statistics over the years and published them without any attempt at window dressing. The figures vary. There are parishes with two percent Mass attendance. There are others with twenty or thirty percent. They vary. But I have also consistently said that there are parishes in the diocese which are today more vibrant than at any time in their history.
Numbers alone do not tell the whole story. I celebrated Mass on Saturday last to remember fifteen priests who had died in the past year, while on Tuesday last I ordained two new priests for the diocese of Dublin. Some will immediately cry “crisis”: fifteen dead and only two new priests. Certainly, we need new priests, but what is important is the quality of faith in people hearts and the level of witness that priests give. This will involve new forms of priestly presence within faith communities in the changing future of Ireland.
Again, I have consistently said that if there is any category of people in Ireland that would consistently be among the most trusted in Irish society it would be “our priest”. People not only respect but also have a very high affection for their local priests, but less enthusiasm and affection for the institutional aspects of the Church. This is the view of priests themselves and it applies to Irish society in general.
There is a very high level of respect for figures like Brother Kevin, Father McVerry and Sister Stan. I have an impression that their status comes not just from the work they do, but also from the fact that they are Church figures who reflect something that people would expect or hope for from the Church to which they belong.
Where will the Catholic Church be in 2027? I would like to reflect on where it will be in numbers, how it can be a more effectively witness, and what will its place be in Irish society?
Numbers are important but must be interpreted. Demography is a mathematical science, but it is a mathematical science about people’s choices. Its results must be tested and verified. Some years ago, the diocesan Council of Priests sponsored a survey by an independent firm of actuaries, based on current statistical information, that looked at numbers of priests and at indications about the size of future congregations as we move towards the year 2030.
The members of the Priests Council in Dublin accepted the findings “as a strong indicator of where we seem to be heading although the Council does not, however, see the projections as a fait accompli.”
What were the findings? The best-case scenario predicted a decline in priest numbers of 61 percent, from 369 priests down to 144 in 2030, provided religious orders maintain their current level of commitment in parishes in the diocese
However, if religious orders were to relinquish the parishes they currently serve, due to the age profile of their own priests, the drop by 2030 would be 70 percent leaving just 111 priests carrying out parish ministry across Dublin’s 199 parishes. 57 percent of the current priests serving in Dublin are over 60 years of age and this is projected to increase to 75 percent by 2030 and the findings predict that just one new priest under the age of 40 will join the priesthood in Dublin every year up to 2030. Other research findings include a predicted drop in Mass attendances by 33 percent by 2030. Mass attendance is sadly lowest in poorer parishes and strongest in middle class parishes.
It should be noted that even among the younger adults who do not participate regularly at Mass, there are many who are still interested in initiating their young people into the church through baptism, confirmation and First Communion. Many priests and laypeople are looking for ways to build on this, responding to pastoral opportunities as they arise, supporting parents in taking their responsibilities personally, and seeking to ensure there is a welcome when people return.
The then Chair of the Council of Priests summed up his reaction to the survey. He stressed that the follow up reflection should be focused on “how we as a faith community in the Diocese can work together to revitalise local Church communities, reawakening parishioners to the gift and call of baptism, reflecting on what it means to be ‘intentional disciples’ of Jesus, and developing within the community again the desire for priestly vocations”. This is a programme for real participation of entire faith communities in the mission of the Church tomorrow.
If things keep going as they are, one cannot reject the conclusions of the survey. But if demography is a science which reflects people choices, the future will not be about lamenting the negative, or feeling that all is not so bad, but will inevitably be looking at ways in which people choices will be influenced and changed. How do we reach out in a new way to people where they are and create a desire among them to deepen their understanding of Christian message? What will the parish of the future look like if it is to realise that task?
People choices are determined by negative and positive impressions. What are the factors that alienate people from the Church structures of today? Probably the most significant negative factor that influences attitudes to the Church in today’s Ireland is the place of women in the Church. Next would be the ongoing effect of the scandals of child sexual abuse. I feel that there are some who feel that the scandal has been addressed and should no longer be talked about. In effect number of accusations have significantly dropped. But the disillusionment continues and it is deep. I believe in particular that people have underestimated the effect of the scandals on young people. Young people have not been prolific in writing letters to the papers about the scandals but their disgust at what happened is deep-rooted.
The response of a parish will involve a different form of ministry. I have called it “Working Together for Mission”. It involves integrating the respective roles of priests, deacons, religious, full time lay ministries and the establishment of communities that involve wider activity of all. By all, I also include young people. This is perhaps the most challenging aspect. A survey of young people’s attitude to parish was carried out in the Dublin diocese as part of the preparation for the upcoming Synod of Bishops called by Pope Francis. The report was one of the most disappointing documents that I read since becoming Archbishop. Young people felt unwelcome in parishes. I quote, without any comment and leave judgement to yourselves: “A number of young people noted that it was people in parishes (priests and parishioners) who were the greatest obstacles for young people getting involved”.
This reflects on our system of faith education which is overly school-centred and which does not bring young people into better communication with the parish. If young people have no bond with a believing faith community then their faith will be weaker.
Ministry must be integrated and our understanding of discipleship must be an integrated one, where theology and prayer, witness and care of the poor belong together and can influence the world around us and make society more loving.
Our faith must influence the society around us. But that influence on society will be sterile without faith. Archbishop Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in a recent article: “we should not be surprised if we become hazy about our doctrine… when we are less clear about our priorities as a community, or if we become less passionate about service, forgiveness and peace when we have stopped thinking clearly about God”. Working for community and justice and deepening our faith in God belong together. Where one is missing, an integrated faith is missing.
Faith involves a different way of living within any culture. What is involved is not a negative reaction or simple rejection of a changing world. What is involved is forming a believing community that sees beyond superficial confines and recognizes God’s presence and purpose in all persons and things.
The Christian life is not easy. The Christian life is not about blindly following a pre-established rulebook or imposing rules on others. In the past the Church and the Irish Church in particular was a highly moralizing Church. Jesus did not write an arid rulebook as an inspiration for his followers. Jesus did not think that belief in him could be attained through imposition. Faith in Jesus is no ideology. It is about a faith which enables each individual to attain gospel wisdom, a freedom to renounce prosperity and security for ourselves in order to live for others as Jesus did and then finding joy and fulfilment in living the Gospel.
The Church’s teaching on human sexuality, for example, must not be the imposition of rules but a process of discernment and reflection on the teaching of Christ that enables people to fathom in its depth the call of Jesus Christ to discipleship and put it into practice. Too often in the past, we were presented first with the rulebook and only later – if ever – with the challenging message of Jesus.
Let me come to my second question: how will the Church more effectively witness to Jesus in the years to come? Faith cannot be imposed. Faith cannot be measured simply by the criteria of surveys. Faith is not just intellectual ability to parse the details of the Church’s teaching. The story, for example, of Matt Talbot, is striking in that not only did his simple faith enable him to see beyond the attitudes of his drinker friends, but led him to develop a deep mysticism and communion with God.
Ministry in the Church in the years to come will have much less to do with management and structures. It will be about men and women who have the ability to speak the language of faith authentically in a world where that language may be alien and to speak in a way that attracts. I must add that this applies in a special way to Bishops in the manner in which they lead a faith community and in the way that they engage with wider society.
Speaking the language of faith in a world where that language is alien is a challenge. A language that has no sense of faith can only inadequately analyse the realities of faith. The Christian has to learn the special art of Jesus who could speak the truth clearly in the face of opposition and intolerance, but who never resorts in reply to belligerence or intolerance.,
I find it interesting to go back to the opening of the Second Vatican Council, back in 1962, and re-read the homily of Pope John XXIII on that occasion. They are words that could easily be penned by Pope Francis today. Pope John stressed that: “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the Deposit of Faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another”
Pope John never denied that there were errors in doctrine within the Church nor did he deny that clashes with certain elements of modern culture could indeed lead to confusion about doctrine. The approach of the Council, however, Pope John proclaimed, should not be one just of condemnation and correction. “Nowadays the spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity”.
My third question should be the place of the Irish Church into the culture of Ireland in 2027. Irish culture is changing and Irish religious culture is changing. Looking at the recent Census, the fastest growing cohort in the Irish population today is people who claim to have “no religion”. They are also among our youngest. Their number, including atheists and agnostics, increased by more than 70 per cent per cent between 2011 and 2016, and now number 481,388. They are now the second largest category in the State, at 10.1 per cent of the population, with an average age of 34, or 3.4 years younger than the average for our population overall. That age group accounts for 28 per cent of the general population, but 45 per cent of those with no religion fall into this age bracket. It is also the age group with which the Church has the weakest links.
I was struck at the fact that there are more members of the current cabinet under forty-five than there are of priests of that age in the diocese. The same applies to leadership cadres in many other sector of society. The challenge is not just about numbers but also about a generational separation. It is about a separation in which leadership in the formation of many aspects of our culture belongs to one generation and leadership and the mainstream membership of the Church belongs to another. How do you bridge that gap?
Firstly, let me say that I am happy that there is a generational change in Ireland. It is a sign of vitality and commitment. I am happy to see a new generation of young politicians who are inspired by a politics of changing Irish society for the good rather than just fixing problems.
Now immediately people will say that the Archbishop of Dublin says he is happy to see politicians who support same sex unions or wider access to abortion. Let me be very clear. The Church will never change its teaching on marriage and on the right to life. The Church will never compromise in its teaching on marriage and the right to life. It is not a matter of simple acceptance of contemporary culture. The Church will always live, to use again the words Archbishop Rowan Williams “at an angle to the mainstream”.
That may mean that being a Christian involves being open to hostility and even to martyrdom as happens in parts of today’s world. But the fate of the Christian is more likely to be that of marginalization rather than martyrdom. Marginalization should not lead however to flight from reality into a comfort zone and to the felt safety of the likeminded. The message of Jesus Christ is relevant in today’s society even in those societies where people are less and less attracted to the demanding teaching of Christ.
One of the problems is that the more Irish society loses its direct rootedness in Christianity, the more the space in which public debate takes place is one where it is increasingly alien to understanding and recognizing religious language.
The answer is not in giving in but in reinforcing the place of faith in our own lives and in living a faith which has a real sense of reaching out and having an impact in society. It is not enough to analyse how the place of God has been reduced in Irish society. We need to stress how we can restore the place of God. Even in the face of hostility and misunderstanding, we ought also to remember those words of Pope John XXIII that we should resort to “the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity”
That said, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that there is a form of pluralism that is selective and finds itself unable to accept the differences and the legitimate and deeply held views of believers in matters of public morality. Pluralism is not mono-culturalism. Pluralism is about fostering active citizenship open to all.
One friend said to me recently that we are moving in Ireland from an unhealthy situation in which the Church dominated social policy, not just into one where religious values are relegated entirely to the private sphere, but into one in which publicly presenting oneself with a religious conviction is like wearing a fur coat, something almost objectionable.
In all of this, I am still an optimist. Pope Francis has set out an example. It is an example which inspires some and which upsets others and leaves them insecure. Curiously, the inspired can be among non-believers and the upset even among Cardinals.
Pope Francis is above all a free man, who can live in a world where faith is marginal and yet manages to touch hearts and challenge them to reflect on and discern those fundamental values that change hearts. Pope Francis is not someone who is out to change the teaching of the Church. What he does is to find ways in which he can win hearts for what the Church’s teaching involves, not through imposing and judging, but through winning and attracting.
There are those in the Church who fail to understand such a vision. There are those in secular society who absolutize individual comments of the Pope and there are those within the Church who feel that unless he daily reaffirms in every detail of all the teaching of the Church that he is somehow rejecting that teaching.
Why am I still optimistic? Irish society is still permeated with elements of faith. Residual faith, however, is probably more fragile in an indifferent world than in a world of hostility. There are deeper elements of goodness and idealism and generosity among young people but despite years of Catholic education, they do not seem to have been truly touched by the knowledge of the person of Jesus Christ. I am optimistic also when I reflect on the lives and ministry of those fifteen priests who died over the past year and of the genuine enthusiasm and joy of the two new priests that I ordained. Numbers may be disproportionate, but there is a continuity of goodness and priestly prayerfulness that remind us that the Lord provides. I am optimistic also as I watch the active faith life of parishes such as your and as we remember the untiring and infectious priestly enthusiasm of Monsignor Patrick Finn whom we honour here this evening.