I was ordained in St Mary's Pro-Cathedral, known to Dubliners as 'The Pro', on 20 December 1967. A priest concelebrates at his ordination Mass, the only occasion in the old days when concelebration took place. I never had a chance to celebrate Mass again in 'The Pro' until 19 November this year where I was one of around 40 priests who concelebrated with Cardinal Seán Brady for the annual Mass for Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary, who died on 7 November 1980. The church was packed but most of those present, including the priests, were on the older side. One exception was the young priest to my left, an Angolan studying in Dublin. I was a few young people in the congregation, some of them Filipinos.
I was shocked, to some degree, though not entirely surprised to read a story by Patsy McGarry in today's Irish Times, Archbishop says Dublin diocese facing crisis, in which he quotes Archbishop Diarmaid Martin as saying, The change that will take place between now and the year 2020 – just eight years away – will be enormous. I am more and more convinced that they will be the most challenging years that the diocese has had to face since Catholic Emancipation. Catholic Emancipation was the act of the Westminster Parliament in 1829 that lifted nearly all of the remaining anti-Catholic laws in the United Kingdom, which in those day included the whole of Ireland. One of the first churches built in Dublin after Emancipation was St Paul's, Arran Quay, where my parents were married in 1942, is now closed as a church of the archdiocese. I'm not sure if it is used on occasion.
Archbishop Martin was speaking a week after a report found that weekly Mass attendance in Dublin is down to 14 per cent (164,000 out of a Catholic population of 1,162,000). More than 30 years ago I heard such figures about some parishes in poorer parts of the city. The archbishop said some time ago that in such parishes now Mass attendance is about two or three per cent.
For someone who remembers packed churches on weekdays during Lent in the 1950s such figures are hard to take in, even though I've seen the decline over the past four decades. Mass attendance on Sundays in those days was probably more than 95 per cent.
The Irish Independent carried a story by Lynne Kelleher on 10 December, Archbishop urges lapsed Catholics to leave the faith. Archbishop Martin said, It requires maturity on those people who want their children to become members of the church community and maturity on those people who say 'I don't believe in God and I really shouldn't be hanging on to the vestiges of faith when I don't really believe in it'.
Two young persons close to me chose last May to have a civil wedding rather than a church one, even though they were raised as Catholics. But the Catholic faith doesn't play any part in their lives now, though I have never heard either of them say a word against the faith or the Church. They made the kind of choice that Archbishop Martin was speaking about. I also made my choice to attend the wedding, since the groom was my only nephew. Many of my generation in Ireland, especially parents, whose faith is strong are finding themselves having to make choices in situations that they never imagined in their younger days.
As I see it, there is a huge loss of faith in Ireland. I don't belong to the school that thinks some vague 'spirituality' is the same as faith in Jesus Christ, God who became Man, who died for us on Calvary and rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. I don't belong to the school that thinks you can be a good Catholic if you rarely go to Mass. Nor am I saying that such persons are bad. I see an integrity in the choice of someone who says clearly that he no longer believes in the Christian faith and lives with the consequences of that.
I pray each day that those close to me who have lost the faith will re-discover the precious gift they received at baptism. I have no doubt whatever that my prayers are fully in accord with God's will and that He will answer them in his own time and in his own way.
Pray for the Church in Ireland, especially in the Archdiocese of Dublin.