What do young Irish Catholics think about their church? There was a fleeting insight into this in today’s Education Supplement in the Irish Times. Brief interviews with four teenage students from Coláiste Cillian in Clondalkin, Dublin, covered a range of topics, including church and going to mass.
Seventeen-year-old Clíona Ni Murchu, showing remarkable compassion for the church, said,
“The child abuse that took place in the Catholic Church is disgraceful – and they have to end the secrecy – but it’s hard on priests who have been innocent. The majority are good. I have questioned my weekly mass-going, but at the end of the day it comes down to faith.”
But Ailís NicUidhir added,
“The church is quite secretive and has pushed younger people out. More and more information will come out and more and more young people will walk away.”
After conducting an open, online survey of laypeople in Ireland as part of my School’s ‘Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism’ research project, a puzzles that remains is:
Just what do young Irish Catholics think about their faith and their church?
Atheists and Protestants of various denominations responded to the surveys (both the layperson survey and the survey targeted specifically at faith leaders) disproportionately to their numbers in the general population, north and south of the border.
It was hard to find a Catholic under age 35 among the survey respondents.
I am intrigued by Ms. Ni Murchu’s remark ‘at the end of the day it comes down to faith.’ This could mean almost anything, and the short nature of the report means that we don’t know if Ms. Ni Murchu expanded on what she means by this.
But we do know that she has questioned her mass-going. Even if she still goes to mass now, in the future will the ‘faith’ she speaks of be nourished by what takes place at your everyday Irish Catholic mass?
‘The abuse disaster has widened a gulf between spirituality and religious practice.’
Does Ms. Ni Murchu’s comment that it comes down to ‘faith’, opposed perhaps to a religious practice like mass-going, confirm Armstrong’s point?
Armstrong adds that,
Many people, most especially women, now prefer to follow a pathway to spiritual experience based on meditative practices to promote “presence”, or “awareness” or “mindfulness”.
These draw on the insights of modern psychology but are also informed by Eastern traditions, giving just place to the body, to sensation and emotion, as integrated with the intellect.
I would say that these sorts of practices can be nourished within and informed by the Catholic tradition, as I experienced on Tuesday on a visit to the Holy Cross Benedictine Monastery in Rostrevor.
On a previous visit to Holy Cross, I asked the monks about young Catholics and their involvement there. The reply I received was that most – I think the rough figure they provided was about 90 per cent – of the people under 35 who are engaged with the monastery’s work hail from Protestant traditions.
This may reflect the movement within Protestantism to re-engage with ancient insights and spirituality from within other branches of Christianity.
But it also prompted me to ask myself if it was a sign that young Catholics are not just walking away from their parishes, but even from the expressions of Christian faith that can be found in a reconciliatory, ecumenical environment like Holy Cross?
Armstrong goes on to recommend that structures for new dialogue within the Catholic Church in Ireland should be put in place, writing,
Theologians of more open minds should be brought in from the cold. There are prophetic voices available among those who have been hurt. Bishops who have tendered resignations may have unique reflections. Pending consideration of women’s ordination, women suitably gifted should be speaking in churches.
I would add that any future conversation should make sure to seek the perspectives of the younger generation.
(Image by Sherlita Tony, sourced on flickr photo-sharing)