The more than a thousand people in Cork and Ross who gather in the parishes every month as members of such groups are not working to recreate the past but to be the foundation of the parishes of the future.

Two hundred years is a long time in the life of any organisation; indeed, many fade long before that time. Two centuries in the life of the Church in Ireland is but a small portion of the history of Christianity on this island but the last two hundred years have probably seen the most dramatic changes.

The Catholic Church, in particular, has seen extraordinary change, moving as it did through periods of recovery from penal laws, the decimation of the famine, the rebuilding that followed, the emergence of a new sense of identity in the independent state, a multi-faceted role in Irish life in the second half of the last century and the foundation-rocking revelations of the 1990s.

Next year, the Catholic Cathedral in Cork will mark 200 years of worship. Dedicated in 1808, it marked the re-emergence of a Catholic culture from behind the veil of darkness cast by the penal laws. At the time of its building it was evidence of a confidence in the Catholic community of Cork and beyond that a new era was about to dawn for Ireland.

In and through the complex history since there is a pattern of dying and rising. However, it is only with the benefit of history and hindsight that we really recognise the cycles and patterns. Not knowing where in the cycle one is positioned at a given time is often disconcerting – a bit like being on a rollercoaster with blindfolds on. We don’t know whether to get ready for a climb or a fall. This uncertainty has its deepest effect in morale.

There is a lot of evidence in our current reality to suggest that Christianity in Ireland, particularly the Catholic Church, is in a state of decline and with more erosion to come. The trends appear to be part of a wider pattern across the developed countries of the northern hemisphere. Local issues seem to have less of an impact than international trends.

Many commentators suggest that “scandals” and particular crises are to blame. However, examination of the trends suggests that the reality is much more complicated. The current downturn in the number of people training to be priests in Ireland, for example, started in the late 1970s — long before any of the highly publicised scandals which are often blamed.

Church attendance in most of the developed countries began in the 1960s and declined steadily during the 1970s and 1980s and then began a levelling period around the same time as the decline sharpened in Ireland for Mass attendance. Statistics in the US, for example, show that the pattern has not changed significantly in the past five years in spite of a wave of scandals and controversies. Two of every five adult Catholics in the US attend Mass at least weekly – down from four out of every five in 1960. There has been a constant decline in the attendance of younger adults long before the recent crisis in church leadership.

In England, one in four Catholics attends church at least weekly. That is a drop of ten percent since less than a decade ago and the slide is downward there still.

There is also a dying in the Church in Ireland, but it is not a death of the body but of some of the things the body used to do.

There are many positive indicators of an emerging vitality in the Church, in the baptised people who make up the Church. This is particularly tangible among the people who are convinced of the value of a religious dimension to life. The people who are participating in church life now have a deeper appreciation than may have been evident in society as a whole when the numbers were greater.

When people gather for parish events which have a particular spirit of enjoyment and welcome, which have been planned and prepared for, and where there are opportunities to connect with others in a real way, people find a new purpose and meaning which is in harmony with their faith and their sense of community.

This happens especially at neighbourhood Station Masses, at Masses in graveyards, at parish missions, at Masses prepared for children and parents involved in First Holy Communion, at flower festivals, at anniversaries of churches, at marriages and baptisms and funerals.

The new vitality of Church is also happening in a quieter way as the organisational life of the parishes is changed. In over 55 of the 68 Catholic parishes of the Diocese of Cork and Ross, groups of parishioners have joined in a spirit of shared ownership and shared mission with clergy and religious. The people who have joined parish assemblies, parish pastoral councils, steering groups and parish finance committees are building on a tradition whereby people have given generously of their time and talents to their local parish.

They are also getting involved in parish a deeper level than before. People are looking closely at their local reality and discovering the needs of the local parish.  They are not just talking about it; they are involved because they know that part of the answer lies in their own response and that of other parishioners.

The more than a thousand people in Cork and Ross who gather in the parishes every month as members of such groups are not working to recreate the past but to be the foundation of the parishes of the future. The number of clergy is falling rapidly –– there are now 112 priests of the diocese in Cork and Ross compared with 175 in 1990 –– but the number of parishioners becoming more actively involved in their parish is increasing rapidly. They are not seeking to replace priests and religious but to complement the importance of priesthood in the parish.

There are two significant challenges to be overcome for this new life in parish to grow. Some people are yet to be convinced that this movement is Spirit-led and that opportunities ought to be created for parishioners to have a fuller role in parish life. Secondly, time is a pressure on two fronts: people who want to be involved are under pressure with many other responsibilities, and it also takes time to nurture the new growth so that it can thrive in a parish.

Some major changes are only evident when we take a 200-year view. Our short-term contributions will blend into the creative plan of the one for whom time is without beginning or end.

(Published in the Southern Star, Oct 2007.)