Last 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.