Ireland’s crisis of Faith

The average age amongst Irish Roman Catholics in 2016 was slightly older than that for the general population at 38.2 compared with 37.4.

‘Never waste a crisis’ said former President Mary Robinson speaking on the Late Late show about the Ukrainian/Russia war.  The Catholic Church is undergoing a crisis of faith, as the Archbishop of Dublin has said, but is this crisis being wasted?  

There is the Synodal Pathway begun by Pope Francis but for forty years the bishops have known what the problems are and still they persist. 

Hope comes from the possibility of change.  When we speak of Catholicism, where is the hope when the possibility of real change is so remote?  We are told that change does happen but be patient. ‘It takes one hundred years for a Council to be received’ they said after Vatican II, which might need upward revision given we are 60 years on.  A nun was appointed to a senior position inside the Vatican and they say it’s a sign of hope. 

A consecrated woman, under vows of obedience to her religious superiors is somehow an opening up to laity and women in particular? Under the most progressive Pope since Vatican II? After the Amazonian Synod, the Pope changed Canon Law to allow women read at mass. At the Synod on the Family, no laity got to vote, except one lay brother who was representing his religious congregation. See! say the groupie fans of Pope Francis, isn’t it great.  It’s like celebrating because Rosa Parks is allowed sit on the bus one day a month. 

And the Pope has signed a document from the CDF which says the Church does not have the power to bless gay unions and God cannot bless sin.  It’s one thing saying what the Church can or cannot do but Church officials cannot limit God to whom Jesus tells us all things are possible.   

Hope and energy

Vatican II was a time of hope and energy and those who attended the council whether as clerics or media all attest to this.  Catholics (before they were labelled ‘liberal’) got very excited about the changes and the possibility of change.  Yet the church quenched that hope for a whole generation since the 1960s and those coming after them, their children, have witnessed that and floundered or mostly walked away. Their children now are among the ‘Nones’ and uninterested.  

Vatican II means little or nothing to them.  And the Church tends to come back into focus when they have kids and schooling and the sacraments become real issues. It’s cultural Catholicism and evidently doesn’t last into adulthood. If you speak to the parents or especially the grandparents it is a matter of deep regret to them that they have not passed on the Faith.  This was reflected in the Synodal listening in every diocese. 

In his Netflix documentary ‘A Life on this Planet’ David Attenborough says we need to live in the hope of actually saving ourselves, not saving the planet, the planet will survive, we may not. 

“What do we do?” he asks. And you look back at the screen blankly. He answers for you: “It’s straightforward. The only way out is to rewild the world”.

“It’s simpler than you might think,” he says, “A century from now, our planet can be a wild place again”.  It’s a wonderful thought to think that there is hope, that the future is not decided yet. 

We are at a crossroads too, we Christians but especially Roman Catholic Christians.  In the West we are in decline and in other less developed parts of the world the faith is thriving.  For the Western world at least, the species called ‘practicing catholic’ or ‘faithful Catholic’ is in sharp decline.  Birth rates have plummeted, our normal parish habitats are either closing or barely used except maybe at Christmas and Easter when they swell up for a day.  Resources have dwindled or being squandered.  Belief has faded. 

I don’t want to take the environmental analogy too far but perhaps rewilding is a good term to use for what a hopeful vision for our church might incorporate.  We need to rewild the scriptures and understand them better.  We need to rewild how we do morals, how we do doctrine.  Landscaped control needs to give way to herbaceous borders. We need to rewild liturgy.  We need to rewild Jesus.  We need to rewild ourselves. We need to breathe a little and let the Holy Spirit blow freely. 

When Bishop Dermot Farrell became Archbishop of Dublin he spoke about the crisis of faith, something he has spoken about previously as bishop of Ossory.  It’s a packed phrase and can be interpreted in so many ways by differing points of view.  When asked as Bishop of Ossory about ordaining married men and married deacons he said that was not the answer because when he looked down the Church on Sunday they weren’t in the pews.  


It was a crisis of faith and not vocations that was the issue.  The problem in other words is not in the shortage of priests, and Dr Farrell has said there is no shortage, just an over-supply of services and buildings, something he tackled in Ossory.  He has repeated similar sentiments as Archbishop of Dublin.   

When it comes to rewilding, a well-known monk in Glenstal Abbey who once took a year off to go ‘walkabout’ around the world, knows a thing or two about letting the Spirit flow freely. 

The former Abbot of Glenstal Mark Patrick Hederman believes that we have to put our faith in the Spirit working away even as we see institutional decay. “No one, not even an Archbishop, has the competence or the authority to declare a crisis of faith. 

“Of course, such an official is in prime position, and has full authority, to declare bankrupt the religious institution over which he presides.  But, maybe, that is just the signal needed for the true life of faith to awaken and blossom as we see springtime emerging in every leaf, and bush. 

“For the Holy Spirit has secret agents everywhere around us, who are ready to bring good news to the poor, to liberate captives, and to declare that the kingdom of God is always around and within us. Why stand here idly beside the empty tomb? He is not here, he is risen and has gone before us deep into 2022″.

Writing in Let Us Dream, Pope Francis says that we need to be alert to the new things that the Spirit is showing us – “The Spirit shows us new things through what the Church calls “signs of the times.” Discerning the signs of the times allows us to make sense of change”.


Yet we can’t sit around pondering the movements of the Spirit as has been done for 40 years.  As columnist Breda O’Brien has written “what is also needed is to take concrete, practical steps to address something which the new archbishop has spoken about again and again – an underlying crisis of faith. 

No-one has found a magic bullet to solve this in the Western world. The crisis of faith is particularly acute among young people.” 

The former Archbishop of Dublin regularly lamented the lack of youth involvement but closed down the Catholic Youth Care agency early on in his ministry. Most clergy are perplexed how to minister to young people and young people, apart from world youth day, find there is little for them in their parishes. 

Breda O’Brien suggests finding and promoting parishes that are doing it right: “One approach might be to look at where faith is actually alive and active in the archdiocese, everywhere from small youth groups for teenagers, to online initiatives for young adults, to outreach to the poor, to bustling pastoral centres and to begin to build on what they are doing right. Sometimes, even neighbouring parishes are unaware of successful ventures which could be replicated in their own communities. 

While the way ahead remains daunting, the archbishop can take comfort from the fact that even the smallest of steps will be appreciated by a battered Catholic community.” 

The theologian Karl Rahner in the book ‘Faith in a Wintry Season’ suggests taking this a step further. When asked about his Church-wide pastoral strategy for the European Church to deal with decline he says that one strategic point, and “particularly important point for me concerns my old question whether the Church is well advised to maintain its system of local parishes, or whether it wouldn’t be better, granted the problematic character of my metaphor, to create flowering oasis even if thereby, from a pastoral and ecclesiological point of view, there would be many areas of desert in between”.

He continues: “The metaphor may be misleading.  But it is wiser to use an unavoidably very limited amount of water to produce an oasis somewhere than to sprinkle the limited amount over the whole land”.

For a Church that has very limited financial resources made all the more urgent by Covid, well-resourced parishes may well be a viable strategy while other parishes are allowed wither.   

No Shame in Doubting 

Pope Francis has said that doubt is important to faith: “The devil puts doubts in us, then life happens along with its tragedies. ‘Why does God allow this?’ But a faith without doubts cannot advance. The thought of being abandoned by God is an experience of faith which many saints have experienced, along with many people today who feel abandoned by God, but do not lose faith. They take care to watch over the gift: ‘Right now I feel nothing, but I guard the gift of faith’. The Christian who has never gone through these states of mind lacks something, because it means that they have settled for less.  Crises of faith are not failures against faith. On the contrary, they reveal the need and desire to enter more fully into the depths of the mystery of God.  A faith without these trials leads me to doubt that it is true faith”.

A crisis of faith then is an opportunity to move beyond the honeyed school yard catechism and discover God on a more adult journey.  Again and again in the diocesan focus groups people have asked for faith development. 

For most, faith formation stopped at their Confirmation and their concept of God is stunted.  It wasn’t helped by a Church obsessed with Sunday Mass attendance above the actually development of the faith in faith communities. 

What are the solutions? Well they were spelled out in the synodal listening: 

  • Community is significant 
  • New ministries for women 
  • Ordained ministry for women 
  • More inclusivity 
  • Bring back young people 
  • Take care of creation 
  • Go out to people on the margins 
  • Faith Development is urgent 
  • Need for healing around abuse 
  • Engage with the vision of Pope Francis 
  • Synodality is way forward 

“We can’t wait for the world to change to feel visible” Michelle Obama once told a hall full of female university graduates.  Laity, especially women, can’t wait for the Church to change to make them feel visible.  This crisis of faith is an opportunity for renewal and reform, we can’t waste it.

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