I’ve been doing a lot of twisting and turning in my mind of late, trying to describe accurately what it’s like being a priest in the Irish Catholic Church these days. The scriptures are loaded with images and parables but none seem to fit. Many pastoral letters from various popes paint more ideas and they also seem to fall short in describing the full reality — at least the Irish one.

It’s difficult to describe the very changed reality that is the Catholic Church in Ireland and it’s also challenging to put into words or images what it is like being a priest in service of the current reality. One of the puzzling issues is that though we have had an unprecedented level of change in society and in the Catholic Church’s place in Irish society, the leadership of the Church in Ireland hasn’t sponsored or organised any research to help describe and understand some of the changes. In turn this leads to the absence of any foundation stone for good forward planning. This change has also been largely ignored by academics and researchers from most Irish centres of learning. (There have been some small contributions in collections of papers and a few books.)

The turn-away from ‘church’ is not a rejection of the spiritual or the essential human needs that traditional religious practises met. Evidence for this in the growth of seminars, workshops and libraries that promote “mindfulness”; colleges are awarding qualifications in “life-coaching” and “business coaching”; movements of people promoting “earth-friendly lifestyle” and environmental awareness are sprouting in every community. Even a cursory glance through the principles and world-views that underpin these highlights an enormous overlap with the core values and principles of Christianity.

But one of the principal realities in the Catholic Church in Ireland now is the changed relationship between most of the population and what they call the “institution”, the “hierarchy”, the “church”. For almost the entire younger generation of teenagers and twenty-somethings, church is beyond their realm of understanding and they have no desire for a meaningful connection. There are times when they are forced on board. They are the ones who cringe in the corner of the room when the priest turns up to lead the rosary or the removal prayers for a family member. Frequently, they don’t know the prayers and, even if they do, the tide of peer pressure is so forceful that they cannot be seen to be be saying them aloud. For them, the Sacrament of Confirmation has evolved into the Last Rites. This is the last time they expect to be seen singing, reading, processing, or looking comfortable in church. Next time when they drift in for Christmas or a family event, their shoulders and heads will have dropped below the peer radar. Yet, ironically, the same institution they now reject considers that they have received up to 13 years of religious instruction!

For another segment of the population, what they call the “church” is a useful service but one that is availed of infrequently. The culture generally feels that it is unwise to be exclusively dependent on it and it is considered sensible to be aware of alternatives, too. The ferry is a convenient way of crossing the river but it is not the only way! And if the weather is stormy, you don’t want to be next or near it. So there are many people whose preference is still to have their wedding ceremony in a church and with a priest. They want their child baptised — though ideally in a ceremony where they are not with another family. They don’t make any connection between these events and being at Mass or supporting the day-to-day life of the parish. So they won’t host a Station Mass, they don’t contribute to the income of the clergy, and they don’t volunteer to serve on any committee or ministry in the parish.

So the best metaphor that I can come up with is a cross-river ferry! Why? Many people just want to get to the “other side”. People don’t see any connection to or commitment to the actual ferry or its crew or owners. They just turn up at the terminal and expect it to be there and on time and ready for them. They drive on, get across, get off, and keep going! And the infrequent passengers are the ones who are most demanding. They expect that all the light and heat will be on full blast for “their big event” but they have no sense that it is the weekly Mass congregation that has paid for the oil and electricity!

These are in sharp contrast to the people who have a sense that life without their local parish would be much poorer. These are the people who are the real Catholic Church in Ireland nowadays. And they are doing some really heavy lifting. In many parishes, including the one where I minister, the drifting away has not been allowed to seem too obvious. This is because a smaller but more faithful cohort have become much more involved and in so doing have compensated for the absence of others. Most of those who are involved are involved in more than one way. A participating family is juggling several irons that are in the fire of parish rotas. Dad is a Minister of the Word, the oldest girl is a reader of the Prayer of the Faithful, Mum is in the choir, another son is an altar server! They may be only forty something percent contributing financially to the support of the priest, but many of them are contributing three times the average. The people who stay away tend to misunderstand this committed core group of parishioners. The mass media also tends to paint them as poorly educated and uninformed about modern life and very traditional in their views. But this is false.

Today’s active Catholics cannot just drift and survive. They are being constantly challenged about why they ‘bother’! So they cannot afford to ignore the cultural context. They are also — like most of their peers — educated and well informed. But how they resolve what can be considered their dissonance in the face of their wider participation in society is key. I am aware of at least two paths that people take.

One path involves taking a defiant position against the cultural tide that seeks to sweep one under and into silence. People who take this path want to stand their traditional Catholic ground and understand that taking a battering from the waves is par for the course. They take refuge and sustenance from joining groups of like-minded people who believe that the strength of their belief is more important that their small numbers. Because they are identifiable in their groups, posters, protests and websites, they become bait more frequently to the trolls and commentators in search of a ‘Catholic’ target for their anger and hate. But this is, in fact, the road least travelled by contemporary Catholics.

The second path is a quieter one. It is less seen and seldom heard. It is almost never described on radio or TV. For most people of the older generation and for many of the people in their middle years, as well as a portion of the current parent generation, church involvement is a natural element of their lives. It is simply integrated in a balanced way into their various lives and lifestyles. This large cohort of people (currently about 40% of the national population) have developed a sensible filter for faith and life. Without much a-do they have learned to filter out many of the traditional devotions from their religious up-bringing and retained the essentials. So, for example, prayer is an essential part of their lives, even if not daily, but the practise of weekly or monthly confession is gone. They listen to church teaching but it is also subjected to their “formed faith filter” and they can identify which lines are essential for living and which ones can be left to the trolls to argue about. They make no apologies for recognising the importance of Mass in their local parish and they attend frequently — but they are equally at home at a neighbour’s civil wedding weekend in a parkland. They are keen to take their turn at hosting a Station Mass in their home and the air of invitation is fresh and open — to non-believers as well.

The faith of these future oriented Catholics is more difficult to describe but wonderful to experience. It is also difficult to define.

“It plays a crucial role, serving as shock absorbers, supporting the upper body, and allowing a wide range of movement in all directions.”

This is a definition for a disc in the human spine! But it is a useful metaphor for the “formed faith filter” of contemporary active Catholics. The characteristics are similar: the need to be flexible and adaptable; the susceptibility to being damaged by undue weight and pressure; the level of pain caused when it is injured; the real difficulty with replacing it with a functioning substitute.

Future faith formation for Catholics needs to include a recognition for the critical part played by this “formed faith filter” – this mediator between Catholics and rapidly changing culture and society. By definition, it is difficult to find sustenance for it in a catechism (which by definitions tends to underline the unchanging) but the essentials are necessary. But finding a cultural interface that respects the core Catholic values and principles and also protects it against wear and tear from a volatile culture is an enormous challenge for all of us.