The Irish Catholic Church – Living or Dying? (Update on Down and Connor’s Living Church Initiative)

imageLast week’s news about plummeting mass attendance in Northern Ireland might seem to confirm impressions of a church that is dying away.

On Friday, the Irish News had a front page story and two-page interior spread on the decline in mass attendance in the diocese of Down and Connor. It was reported that just one in five Catholics attend mass on Sundays, and that mass attendance is down to 4% in some parts of Belfast. These figures were provided by the diocese, which did its own audit of mass attendance on a particular Sunday.

Fair play to the church for releasing such disheartening figures. As Mick Fealty summed it up on the Slugger O’Toole blog:

It’s the sharpness of the decline that must give huge worry to the hierarchy of the church… Sunday observance was 43% in 2006 (just after the current Pope took office) and is now down to just 20%…

But in the midst of that story of decline, there are some places where signs of life can be found. One of those is Down and Connor’s Living Church initiative, whose ‘listening process’ I’ve blogged about before.

Back in November, Living Church launched a report on its listening process. A Living Church office, promised at that time, has now been set up with a team of four workers based in the Good Shepherd Centre on the Ormeau Road. The office is open Monday-Friday from 9 am-5 pm and ‘available as a resource to the parishes and organisations across the Diocese.’

On Sunday, Living Church launched a website, in conjunction with World Communications Day in the Catholic Church (Feast of the Ascension).

The website reports that:

The Living Church team will be hitting the road during the month of May as we visit the 12 vicariates and work with each Parish in beginning to identify the priority areas and next steps to realising the vision of Living Church. 

The team visits West Belfast tomorrow, Tuesday 22 May, at 7.30 pm in St Michael’s Parish Centre on Finaghy Road North, Belfast.

The Living Church website has a calendar outlining details of the remaining consultations throughout Down and Connor.

Though the Living Church process is of course in its early days and yet unproven, I see it as a tentative sign of life in its aims to support and enhance deeper engagement by lay people in the life of their church.

This is expressed most clearly in the sections of the new website under the heading ‘Our Vision’, where Lay Participation is highlighted. It has this to say about establishing structures to facilitate lay participation, including Parish Pastoral Councils and the Grouping (previously called Clustering) of Parishes:

During the course of the Listening Events there was a resounding call for the establishment of Parish Pastoral Councils that were effective and sought the engagement of the lay faithful.  The Living Church team will be supporting and facilitating existing councils to identify their priority areas for action.  Pastoral councils will enable local people to work co-responsibly with their clergy to identify the pastoral initiatives that need to be established for their own local area.

The Living Church team are also supporting 2 pilot projects within the Diocese.  Parishes in North Belfast and along the North Antrim Coast are working together as pastoral areas to identify how to share resources, talents and ideas for the good of the Church.   Grouping Parishes for Mission is strongly recognised within the Irish Church as one of the many ways to support our renewal.  At the core of these projects is the development of teams whereby laity, clergy and religious will become praying, discerning communities seeking to harness the generosity of all in the life and ministry of the Church.

Cynics may see Parish Pastoral Councils and the Grouping of Parishes as the church resorting to desperate measures due to a shortage of priests.

But to the extent they encourage lay people to take their greater responsibility for their church, they can be seen as bringing new life into an Irish church that desperately needs – to borrow an expression from the evangelical tradition – to be born again.

3 thoughts on “The Irish Catholic Church – Living or Dying? (Update on Down and Connor’s Living Church Initiative)”

  1. Some interesting comments here which I read the other day:

    ”“The Church does not want to lose her clients, so wants to acquire new members. This produces a kind of secularization which is truly deplorable. … The world is going astray, the church is going astray in the world, priests are stupid and mediocre, happy to be only mediocre people like the rest, to be little proletarians of the left. I heard a parish priest in one church saying: ‘Let’s all be happy together, let’s shake hands all round … Jesus jovially wishes you a lovely day, have a good day!’ Before long there will be a bar with bread and wine for Communion; and sandwiches and Beaujolais will be handed round. It seems to me incredible stupidity, a total absence of spirit. Fraternity is neither mediocrity nor fraternization. We need the eternal; because … what is religion? what is the Holy? We are left with nothing; with no stability everything is fluid. And yet what we need is a rock.”

    It seems to me that if we listen to the voices of our age, of people who are consciously living, suffering, and loving in the world today, we will realize that we cannot serve this world with a kind of banal officiousness. It has no need of confirmation but rather of transformation, of the radicalism of the Gospel.”

    Joseph Ratzinger in Co-workers of the truth: meditations for every day of the year (Ignatius Press, p. 303 – originally from Diener eurer Freude).

    I love Cardinal Ratzinger’s directness. Whilst it is important that people attend Mass, in so much as they satisfy a precept of the Church, it should not be seen as an end in itself, as if to say, ”the church is full, and all is well with the Church and the world”.

  2. {Living and Dying}
    In reply to that the letter from Martin May 21st it is excellent,I smiled to myself at the Beaujolais and the lets all be happy comment.In a certain church in Limerick one can have a bowl of soup,at the back of the church. I agree that some clerics have lost the plot in a desperate bid to get people in the door. Its true that The C.C do not want to lose clients in the congregation (the firm).How do you radicalize the Gospel message?Gospel music perhaps? these have been around a long time and have full-filled a particular need but they have a vibrancy built in.The Message of the Gospel has not changed it is the executives( in collars) that have been delivering Heretical dogma over a long period they have sanitised out the core of truth. Once in history Christians were famous for the love they had for one another,where did this go? this has been lost along the way Present day Catholicism in Ireland is frozen in time one would be ashamed to be a member sometimes.Issues that effect people in present day Irish society are not touched on unemployment debt, uncaring attitudes particularly by smug clerics.Why would anyone want to go in to Mass if there is nothing inclusive for a lay person except a hollow echo from pulpits. It is like there is a collective agenda obsessed with the abuse issue,I have every sympathy for anyone affected by this in case this is taken out of contex. I assume this letter was written by a cleric? I would not have read that article by Ratzinger so I couldn’t comment.I would not be a fan of his Holiness and the recent visit to Ireland by the vatican’s minister for justice Monsignor Scicluna is an affront to ordinary Irish people He did not apologise to the people of Raphoe?.Secularization has altered people and unless one has position in society and wealth the Catholic church will discard you,maybe it was all the Cumboays of the 70ts and the banjo strumming or the happy clappies that caused the blip anyway whats done is done it is an elitest organisation .

    x-mature-theology student

  3. As a Catholic, I find the comments in the previous post in relation to the Holy Father, deeply & gratuitously offensive. I feel an apology is in order. God bless the Pope.

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