Tuesday 20 August 2019

A lot has changed – but people are still believers


THERE was a time, not so long ago, when a red line could be drawn through Holy Week in your diary and reserved exclusively for devotions and Masses in our local churches. Holy Week was a big deal, and the Catholic traditions that marked it were as important as the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

How so much has changed in Catholic Ireland in so little time. No other country in the Western world has questioned its attitude towards religion like Ireland. And yet, there is ample evidence of renewed faith and belief springing up in every parish in this country. We appear to be in that strange place called limbo – we're neither fully religious nor fully Catholic. So what's going on?

Northern Ireland journalist Malachi O'Doherty wrote a fascinating book a few short years back titled Empty Pulpits. It was a forensic examination of Ireland's retreat from religion. The entire book explains how scandals within the Catholic Church, including paedophilia, were not the sole reason why the flock had decided to scatter. Any half-informed analysis of religion in Ireland would accept that to be the case.

O'Doherty argued that when it comes to religion, you cannot compare Ireland to any other semi-religious country in Europe. We can only compare the Ireland today to the Ireland of the past, simply because we were a uniquely devout nation. We have rejected more religion that any other race, simply because we had more of it to start with.

Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are getting a hearing in Ireland today that they could only have dreamed of a few years ago. More and more of us have become rationalists, looking back at our devotion and subservience as nothing more than a belief in Santa Claus that went on a bit too long. And yet, we are still holding on to a religion of sorts. More and more Christian groups are springing up. Religions, including Islam, are finding roots in places in Ireland we thought unimaginable a decade ago. We want to hold on to something. We are putting up all the arguments against the Catholic religion we once knew, yet we are reluctant to throw it out completely. Just check out your local church this week and see how many still want to remember the death and resurrection of the man most of this country believes to be our saviour.

A survey commissioned by the Iona Institute and the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland a few years back made some remarkable findings.

Only one in 20 teenagers and young adults were able to answer what is the first commandment. Only one third of those questioned could answer where Jesus was born. Less than half of the young people could name the three persons of the Holy Trinity, and the same ones who got that right are the ones who knew the first book of the Bible is Genesis.

Perhaps something that tells us more about our attitude to religion was a survey commissioned by Accord, the Catholic Marriage Care Service. For example, it found that nearly one quarter of married couples surveyed met in pubs. More than half had lived together before tying the knot. Almost 70 per cent described themselves as moderately religious, while six per cent said they were very religious. A quick analysis of those figures alone shows that a large number of self-proclaimed religious people are ignoring Church teaching. It could equally be argued from those findings that we are living in at time when neither religion nor marriage is what the Church thinks it is.

The Catholic Church, through Bishop Willie Walsh, read that survey as ' good news for marriage'. And there's also hope for those marriages which find themselves on the rocks because the Catholic Church is there to help them. The 1997 Family Law Act recommends that solicitors refer couples to guidance counselling before going to the courts for a divorce. Yet, in the year in which that marriage survey was conducted, how many couples were referred to Accord for counselling? None.

Surveys and mathematical analysis won't provide all the answers to our attitudes and the real reasons for those changed attitudes to religion in Ireland today. But it is fair to assume that large portions of those remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ this week are doing so for reasons different to why people did it in the past.

We just might be coming to realise that all the big, reliable institutions we once knew and trusted have, one by one, failed us and failed us miserably. Perhaps we're realising that financial and political authority can't be trusted and can't be relied upon for a means to a content life on this earth.

Perhaps we are slowly making the distinction between institutionalised, man-made religion and the message upon which their religion is supposed to be founded. Holy Week still holds a special place in the lives of thousands of people all over this country. But more and more of us are motivated into doing the stations of the cross and remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for a very good reason. We're doing it out of choice now, not of fear. That, in itself, is a mammoth shift in Ireland's understanding of and attitude towards Easter.

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