It may not come as a surprise to most of us, but an international report published earlier this month has provided the cold hard facts to confirm it – religion has lost its stronghold in Ireland, registering the steepest decline in faith worldwide according to the WIN-Gallup International Religiosity and Atheism Index.
In 2005, the study found 69% of Irish people considered themselves religious, but that number has dropped to less than half of the national population, just 49%.
We don’t need the experts to try and explain these results. There is a steady decline in faith worldwide, but with the Republic’s brief flirtation with the Celtic Tiger, a deep-seeded history of sectarian violence north of the border, and the apparently ceaseless revelations of sexual abuse and corrupt cover-ups in the Catholic Church, it’s not surprising that we are leading the pack in this demise.
For me, the church-going stopped when the hangovers started, around the mid-teens, when it became less embarrassing for my family to have one less body in their regular pew on a Sunday morning, than suffering the humiliation of a mid-liturgy regurgitation.
But even before then, when I was a good Catholic child, I don’t know if I was ever particularly religious. I knew the stories, understood the general ideas, sang all the lovely songs, but it was always just a story, an idea or a song, much like the teachings of Walt Disney, it never manifested as anything real for me.
With an atheist father and a mother who I still suspect enjoys the peace and quiet of Sunday morning mass more than the spiritual enlightenment, I was never embedded with the Catholic mantra that previous generations were instilled with. I didn’t even receive the typical religious guidance offered by the education system until I was eight years old when the move to a small, rural primary school left me very suddenly in the Catholic stronghold. I recall being vaguely embarrassed that everyone else my age had already made their First Holy Communion, and like a baptism of fire, I was thrown into preparations to receive the sacrament with the class below (…all five of them). Slowly but surely my primary school teachers and the local parish priest integrated me into the flock, mindlessly rattling off the morning prayers, singing in the school choir, making collages of the Ascension for the Easter display and donning a tea-towel headdress for the annual nativity play.
I don’t know if I ever really believed in the words that passed my lips, or if I ever felt passionately about them, one way or the other. Growing up in Northern Ireland a question of your religion is such a loaded one that many people throw off all affiliations and declare themselves atheist. I’ve never gone so far as that, but the term Catholic is something that sits on my birth cert rather than in my soul. I would never be so obnoxious as to call others’ faith into question, but similarly, I’d happily confiscate the microphones of those God-fearing Jesus freaks who infest Church Street of a weekend and stick it where even the Lord’s light don’t shine.
But was I ever really religious?
Can you even consider yourself religious at the age of eleven?
I remember being distinctly unreligious in my protests to sleep in on Sundays, condemning our need to learn off the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in their entirety for GCSE Religion, and opting to revise for my final A-Level exam in the Sixth Form rather than attending my Form Class’s Leaving Mass. But then, I also sang solo at our Primary School’s Christmas celebrations, and in the folk choir at our GCSE leavers mass, I packed my St Bridget’s Cross and rosary beads when I left for university and they still hold precedent in my bedroom now. I carry a religious card in my purse.
Perhaps my past involvement in all those many school masses had something more to do with getting out of class, but the religious symbols I still cart around with every house move mean something different.
For my generation in Ireland, being a Catholic means much less than that of our parents’ and certainly our grandparents’, but it still holds a degree of identity for us.
How many of us have endured the monotony of a Sunday mass just to scope the talent going up for Communion? On the day of a big exam or an interview, how many of us have carried some reassurances in the knowledge that Granny has the candle lit at home, or you’re wearing your Immaculate Medal under that crisp white shirt? (Just last month my mother made a series of emergency phone calls around the family when she realised I had an interview half an hour earlier than she’d told everyone to start praying/candle-lighting.) And the religious symbols that still don my bedroom wall – the St Bridget’s Cross, handmade by my granddad, the rosary beads – blessed in Knock by my granny, and in my purse, the card holding a piece of cloth touched to the relics of Saint Therese – a present from my aunt when I first left home.
For us, religion is, for the most part, a sentimental piece of our childhoods, something that brings our entirely family together for one day of the week to drink tea by the bucketful, eat fresh scones and examine the fashion faux pas and social disgraces aired at morning mass. The religious tokens and medals we treasure offer an irrational reassurance not that God or Mary or the Holy Spirit are providing some higher guidance or enlightenment, but that there are people at home who love and care for us, and will hope and pray for our health, good fortune and safe return.
For the most part, this is the case. But occasionally, as it is for bad Catholics worldwide and across the generations, there comes a point when you really need to believe a decade of the rosary or a heartfelt plea to some higher power will make a difference.
Recently, I’ve found myself increasingly at this point. Witness the suffering of a loved one, even the strictest atheist will fall to their knees and recite “deliver us from evil” until the apocalypse, even when you know in your heart of hearts that there is nothing to be done.
The sexual abuse scandals which have plagued the Catholic Church in Ireland have a lot to answer for in the country’s religious decline, and it’s a topic that brings the most unholy words to my tongue on most occasions. But as in every profession, there are bad people, people who make mistakes, bosses who will cover up their misdemeanours and buy the silence of victims wherever possible, and yes something must be done about it. The truth must come out, the guilty must be punished by law, and the victims should be granted the justice and retribution they deserve.
There are still good men who wear the collar, who spoke up when others tried to bury the scandals, who advise the desperate and give charity to the poor. The men who call in on our grandparents who are too ill or weak to make it to mass, and visit the hospital rooms of the ill to give some comfort or relief to the suffering and their families, who bring communities together in celebration and mourning.
Yes the Catholic Church has been responsible for the sexual and cultural repression of Ireland for decades, it’s most wicked members have caused heartache and destruction for individuals and families for just as long, but we cannot disregard the good of individual people in the church just as we cannot ignore the evil and wrongdoing of others. Should an entire institute of individuals be condemned and tarred with the same brush?
For future generations, religion will continue to mean much less than has done for us, but I will certainly mourn its loss entirely. How many of us want to see Ireland give up the home comforts of its traditional faith entirely? The milestones of our lives marked only by legal certificates and civil ceremonies? Should we sacrifice the irrational reassurances s and sentiments of our childhood? Give up the hopeless comfort of prayer at the deathbed of a loved one?
I hope we will continue, as we have in recent years, to alter the prominence and importance that faith has in our daily lives? Catholic on our birth certificates if not in our hearts, faithful by nature if not by name. Yes we may give up the doctrine but hopefully not the sentiment.
For me, the Catholic faith was defined best by writer Sean O’Faolain: “Nothing more than a child’s fear of the dark”.
And after all, what’s the harm in a nightlight?