Another Crisis For Catholic Church In Ireland

On Sunday & Monday of this week I attended three funerals (ie three in 26 hours) which may sound like a movie script where I am played by Hugh Grant. It did however give an insight into three very different churches with a different demographic and profile in each.

The first, in the village in which I live was a massive affair. Although the funeral Mass was offered by a relative of the deceased, the key thing about the parish is that there are actually two churches, three miles apart. Now served by just one priest a man in his early 80s. Back in the early 1990s there were two priests. The older man lived in this village. The younger man in the “other” village. Two Masses (Saturday and Sunday) in each Church. Now the Churches alternate. Saturday here, Sunday there or vice versa. The evidence of my eyes ……..I live about 200 metres from the Church was that (1990s) cars were parked well past our house…..actually increasing as the village got bigger……..then dwindling so that the cars didnt reach our house (the downturn in attendance) but now the cars park past our house again (a consequence of folks coming from our “sister” village). Demographic……certainly fewer younger faces. But in itself thats not important.

The second church was a “new” 1970s parish, a spin off from an older parish in Belfast. Built circa 1971 with much expense it was effecctively rebuilt this century and visibly has downsized (there is another church in the parish). It might be described as one of Belfasts poorest parishes. The third funeral was in (traditionally) Belfasts most affluent parish. Clearly a different demographic of people. But ironically this Church (or rather Parish), was originally built for the domestic servants of South Belfast. My late father used to take a morbid interest in Church collections mainly because of he was one of “the old decency” of pioneer men “who took up the plate”. Armed with the Down & Connor Catholic Directory he knew parish populations.

As with everything, it is often difficult to disentangle “reasons” from “excuses” and thats the case with falling numbers and falling collections. Too easy to blame both entirely on sex abuse scandals. In terms of falling numbers, I discussed this with two priests in March (Slugger passim) one who is 50plus, the other about 30. I pointed out that the “legal” definition of a Catholic is a person who makes his/her Easter Duty…..the younger guy was unaware of this and the older guy remembered vaguely that there was “something like that” in the old days. Effectively the Catholic Church has re-defined a “Catholic”. Needs must when the Devil drives is an inappropriate phrase perhaps……..but certainly no priest is going to scold parishioners who attend monthly as they would have scolded 40 years ago. Indeed anyone attending (increasingly expensive for parents) First Communions will note in the weeks after, the burden of actually bringing eight year olds to Sunday Mass falls on…..grandparents rather than parents.

And indeed the middle aged Catholic is the unhappiest of all. Brought up to believe Right from Wrong, the World has changed in his/her lifetime. Elderly parents have certainties. Children have different certainties. The middle-aged have no certainty other than a foot in both worlds. But the Catholic Church has re-defined Catholicism. You might move into a new parish and phone for advice on what time is “Sunday Mass?” and you might almost get a reply “what time can you get here?” But the four wheeled Catholic……..a pram to Baptism, a limo to a wedding and a hearse to a funeral was once despised by the (clerical) Church. Now it appears to be acceptable. It will do.

The key thing is that apart from trendy liberals, children are still getting baptised, still making First Communion……..and being facilitated from “integrated” schools in a way that Bishop Philbin would not have countenaced in 1970s Holywood. And despite hype to the contrary, integrated education is no real “threat”, especially in a community where people care more about a “nationalist” ethos rather than a “Catholic” ethos. Catholic schools provide both.

The Collection argument is slightly different. Monthly and Yearly attenders dont actually contribute much. Thats obvious. But “supporting the upkeep of our pastors” as it was known was always a bit “iffy”. The traditional reading of yearly offerings in rural parishes (long stopped) is a thing of legend. Farmers accepting their role as “£5 donors” to get one up on their neighbours in the “£4 list” and looking down on the ten shilling donors. “Ten shillings Paddy?…….I heard that the smuggling was good last week” can be effective from a South Armagh pulpit. But in fact I know plenty of people who would happily not contribute. “Two shillings a week for the Catholic school……..why should I? I have no kids and the family next door gets away with paying one shilling and they have three kids there”.

It was always thus. But it seems unfair that the burden of Church upkeep (including compensation payments to sex abuse victims) is falling disproportionately on blameless people in the pews and very understandable that they dont like it, while the Church sits on valuable portfolios. My impression is that there is a stand-off. The Church needs the cash. And the congregations aided and abetted by reformist clergy are holding out for more accountability in parishes and dioceses. And Money is the trump card. Its not just abusing bastards who have been drummed out of the Church. Several were money grabbing bastards. There is a certain kinda priests now identifying themselves more overtly with the folks in the pews and “you need it more than I do” goes a long way. Its a long game.

And that really sums up the Irish Catholic Church. It was persecuted for centuries and at times the head of a priest was worth five pounds. Unlike Italy, Spain, Bavaria or even England, the Irish Church and the Irish people have been held in low esteem by the authorities in Rome. The Irish are simply regarded as a lower class of people.The Papal Doctrine (admittedly in the reign of the only English Pope, Adrian IV) of Laudabiliter enshrines English dominance over Ireland. It was enacted in 1155AD, three decades before the Reformation which further complicated hostilities between “Protestant” England and “Catholic Ireland”.

The Irish Catholic Church has always been the persecuted Church of the “Mass Rock” (open air Mass as it was illegal) “hedge school” (illegal) education and the Priest being identified with a broader “nationalist” identity.

The French Revolution (1789 et seq) complicated things. Irelands first legal seminary was set up by the British Government in 1795 as a common cause with Catholicism against anti monarchist and anti Church….Republican feelings in post Revolutionary France. Tragically the “official” Irish Catholic Church sided with the British against the United Irishmen Rebellion in 1798 even though it was supported by its own flock in Wexford and Connacht. It is really only in the nineteenth century that Catholic and nationalist/republican interests came together.

Arguably, the foundation of the Republic of Ireland gave too much say of all religions especially Catholicism and the Irish Catholic Church has been a de-facto monarchy in Ireland. Being “allowed” to act above the Law.

The sex scandals have empowered the Republic to assert its primacy.



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