It has often been said that the Catholic Church likes to row against the tide and there is a evidence that a lot of oars are doing just that in our parishes these days.

The news media keep reminding us that the construction boom has ground to a halt. Hard evidence for this and resulting unemployment levels is provided the Central Statistics Office in their reports. One of their latest reports shows that between October 2007 and October 2009 the number of peopel on the live register (includes part-time workers drawing some benefits) has jumped from 133,200 to 335,500 – and increase of 202,300 people, or nearly 152%.

One component of our society and church seems to be intent on bucking that trend, too. There appears to be a boom in church construction work in Cork and Ross Diocese. Several of the parishes are plunging themselves into major debt for the foreseeable future as they repair and upgrade churches.

Naturally, no one wants a church that lets rain down on top of the congregation. No community wants to face the fact either that the church may not be necessary in years to come.

All Saints Church in Drimoleague (where I was baptised) undergoes major refurbishment
All Saints Church in Drimoleague (where I was baptised) undergoes major refurbishment

Church attendance is down – and has been going down for a few decades. The average age of most congregations is way out of sync with the population as a whole in Ireland. The people between 15 and 45 are very under-represented in church services. This becomes especially evident when a church holds a funeral for a young parishioner.

There is no evidence to suggest that this cohort of people will will ever become regular church-goers. Experience in continental Europe, the UK and in the USA shows that the trend does not reverse easily, if at all. Research shows that the average among those saying they attend church every in 37 large Catholic population nations is 40%. So is this the figure we need to get comfortable with in Ireland?

The recent Iona Institute sponsored opinion poll in Ireland puts weekly Mass attendance at slightly above that.

It shows that weekly church attendance is 46% (up from 42% compared with the ESRI poll), while the percentage who go monthly or more is 19% adding up to a grand total of 65%. Only 1% of respondents never go, while another 10% have not been in at
least a year.

So, for the most part, we will need church space for around 45% of the Catholic population. Equally worrying is that only 45% of the population are likely to help fund the running costs of the churches — and that assumes that everyone who attends church contributes to the collections.

The most worrying aspect of predicting the future need for churches is that the diocese will shortly not have enough priests to staff all the parishes. The rapidly falling number of priests combines with the equally rapidly changing age-profile of the priests to make it a fact that many of the 68 parishes will not have a priest who is under 75 (the church’s ‘retirement age’ for priests) very soon.

There are three of the diocesan priests on sick-leave and away for their parishes right now. Two of the three are based in one-man parishes. Other priests are being asked to drive up to 100-mile round trips to fill in. Parishes that don’t have a resident priest will not have weekly Sunday Mass in each church. The principal source of parish funds is the weekly collection donated by those who attend Mass.

Substantial planning is not happening. Denial is over-flowing among the clergy. Parishioners tend to be more realistic and open about the need to change but they believe it’s not their place to initiate the conversation. They keep hoping in silence.

Meanwhile, the scaffold goes up on the church buildings. Many of them close for refurbishment and everyone seems to manage fine while one church in an area is closed. So the unpalatable truth seems to be that there is no real need to keep all the churches functioning.