Parish Priests Reflect on the Decline of the Irish Catholic Church

image Today’s Irish Times features interviews by Rosita Boland with three priests at various stages of their careers, responding to what is beginning to look more and more like the collapse of the Irish Catholic Church.

All three condemn the recent revelations of child abuse and cover-up. Two of them share their view that the Irish Catholic Church will keep declining. ‘Very shrunken’ is the way 59-year-old Fr Dick Lyng of Galway describes it. 40-year-old Fr James McSweeney of Cork simply says, ‘People won’t come back to the church.’

These interviews, candid and poignant, give us an insight into how scandals in the church have demoralised clergy throughout the island. Fr Michael Kelley, a 34-year-old based in Crumlin in Dublin, says: ‘I’ve been called a child rapist on the street.’

The interviews also illustrate a theme Malachi O’Doherty picked up on in his book Empty Pulpits (Gill & Macmillan, 2008): There are some kind and understanding parish priests doing good work, in spite of a secretive and out-of-touch hierarchy operating above them.

O’Doherty is of course no fan of the Catholic Church, and in Empty Pulpits he enthusiastically describes how it is crumbling as an institution in Ireland. But the fact that the work of some priests shines through is a testament those out there who are making a positive contribution to life on this island.

In my School’s online survey of faith in Ireland, conducted last year, we asked people what they enjoyed most about their faith communities, and indeed some responses from Catholics focused on the good work of parish priests (full report here):

I love our parish priest. He works really hard to keep the show on the road despite his huge workload looking after a rural congregation as well as our town. He gives great practical sermons. – Female, Co. Kildare

Our parish priest is a genius! – Female, Co. Meath

The priest tells good stories instead of preaching. – Male, Co. Monaghan

On the other hand, a great many identified challenges in the Irish Catholic Church arising from poor homilies that do not engage an educated laity, out-of-touch priests, and a paranoid attitude towards the media and secular society. And as a woman from Co. Dublin wrote, ‘Just one parish priest and two Sunday masses are not enough to engage people in the parish.’

This last comment, I think, reflects a lowest-common-denominator approach to the laity that the Irish Catholic Church must confront if it is going to survive and thrive.

In days gone by, as O’Doherty describes in his book, people went to mass for social reasons – to meet their neighbours and get the latest news. This doesn’t happen so much anymore. The people in the pews are more likely than in times past to be there for spiritual reasons, and it the service is uninspired and alienating they won’t come back.

Today’s interviews with Frs Kelley, Lyng and McSweeney, coupled with the evidence from our surveys and O’Doherty’s book, provide some examples of priests at the grassroots who may be capable of taking the church in a more inspiring direction.

(Photo from flickr)

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