By Sarah Mac Donald - 07 June, 2017
“People from abroad are often astonished at the level of antipathy to the Church displayed in our country.”
Hostility to the Church in Ireland is now so ingrained in Irish culture it is contributing to the decline in vocations, Bishop Leo O’Reilly has warned.
In a strongly worded homily at a ceremony to honour the relics of St Oliver Plunkett, the Bishop of Kilmore likened the antagonism to the church to persecution and said, “people from abroad are often astonished at the level of antipathy to the Church displayed in our country”.
Dr O’Reilly said on Tuesday that “The Church here is not subject to the kind of persecution that it experienced in the 17th century during St Oliver’s ministry, nor as it is in many other parts of the world today. But I don’t think you have to be paranoid to believe that there is a kind of persecution of the Church taking place here all the same.”
Though there is no physical persecution, “it is no less real for that. It is more subtle,” he warned and explained that it takes the form of gradual exclusion of Church people or activities from the public space.
“There is denigration of religious beliefs, practices and institutions on radio, television and on social and other media. There is often a focus on bad news about the Church to the almost total exclusion of any good news,” he criticised.
In tandem with this denigration, the Bishop said the Irish Church was facing “a crisis of vocations to the priesthood and religious life which is rooted in a deeper crisis of faith”.
He acknowledged that part of the reason for this is the sins and failures of Church people that have caused “great scandal and undermined the faith of many”.
Another reason is the challenge of life-long priestly celibacy in “a culture that is unsympathetic to chastity and short on long-term commitments”.
He admitted that in this kind of situation it would almost be a surprise that anyone would want to consider devoting their lives to being a priest or religious.
“It would take real courage, deep faith and strong conviction to offer oneself as a candidate for the priesthood or religious life in a culture as hostile to faith as ours,” he said.
The Diocese of Kilmore is feeling the cost of the vocations crisis. In the past, at this time of the year, bishops were faced with the dilemma of having more newly ordained priests than vacancies.
“Those days are long gone. We have had only one ordination for the diocese of Kilmore in the past 13 years and just one student in the seminary,” Bishop O’Reilly explained.
While the services of a number of overseas priests as well as some retired missionaries have boosted the numbers ministering in the diocese, that could not hide the reality of the situation which Dr O’Reilly’s successor will face in ten years’ time.
“I have to confess it looks bleak enough. Unless there is a dramatic change in the vocations trend, we will then have fewer than 30 priests, perhaps about 25, for our 34 parishes.”
Last weekend, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin warned that the Church in Ireland is at a “crucial moment” in its history.
Warning that the Church faces challenges of change, he highlighted that the numbers of those who actively take part in Church life has diminished.
“The number of priests and vocations to the priesthood has fallen. Vocations to religious life are less numerous and right across the board it looks as if the appeal of the Church is something which attracts a generation of the past while young people – despite their idealism and generosity and goodness – feel alienated within and indeed alienated by the Church,” he said.
In his homily for the Feast of St Kevin in St Mary’s Pro Cathedral, Dr Martin said “Some would say that the Irish Church has lost its sense of direction, and seems content to watch a downward trajectory not really knowing how to stop it or change it.”
Meanwhile there are those who would “actively wish to see the Church remove itself or be removed from any organised presence in Irish society and that while we should be prepared to recognise the good that was done in the past by some individuals, they would wish to see the Church as institution retreat into irrelevance.”
He said it must be recognised “with brutal and candid honesty the many ways in which the history of our Church as institution has been alienating: alienating for people who have encountered it negatively and alienated from the message and the image of Jesus Christ.”
A missionary Church is a Church that reaches out and must reach out not in a domineering or condemnatory manner.
“It must reach out in a way that touches the heart and the humanity of each one. It must reach out in a way that respects others, accepts them, welcomes them in their dignity, and guides them.”