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Will Ireland Be Christian in 2030?

7/20/2005 - 7:00 AM PST

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How Dublin's Archbishop Sees It

DONEGAL, Ireland, JULY 20, 2005 (Zenit) - Here is the working text of an address prepared by Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin for an address to the Patrick MacGill Summer School in Glenties, County Donegal. The text was adapted slightly here.

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Will Ireland Be Christian in 2030?

Speaking notes of Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin
Primate of Ireland

A few weeks ago I was surprised by a remark on a German television talk show by Gregor Gysi, the leader of the German Communist Party, who when asked about his worries about German society said: "Ich fuerchte eine Gottlose Gesellschaft" -- "I fear a Godless society."

It was an unusual comment from the leader of a communist party, with its roots in the former East Germany. As the television debate continued, this declared atheist noted that German society needs the moral framework that only those Christian roots embedded in his society can give. He noted that even the highly moralistic code of the communist ideology in the German Democratic Republic was effectively rooted in Christian principles.

These comments struck me in particular since the speaker was never a Christian. He is personally of Jewish background and the territory of the German Democratic Republic was that part of Germany where religious practice was always and still is exceptionally low.

It is hard to deny that there is a sense then in which our Western societies, even when they appear to be de-Christianized, still retain vestiges of a Christian culture which possesses a unique capacity for moral cohesion. No other philosophical or political basis has ever done so quite so well.

Ireland is undergoing today a process of secularization which many would see moving towards the situation described by Gysi: a secularized society which still turns to a cultural religious ethos to hold together and build the most effective consensus possible around a network of values which society needs -- at least at certain moments. Perhaps Ireland may be like that in 2030 -- but does that mean that Ireland would be Christian?

Beyond surveys

Of course one should really begin with the question, is Ireland Christian today? Is it more or less Christian that it was 20, 50 or 100 years ago? I believe that we do not really have enough solid research into the nature of the change in religious adherence. As archbishop of Dublin I am surprised at the superficiality and the anecdotal evidence I am presented with when I ask about concrete pastoral options and about the situation of the faith in Ireland.

There are the regular surveys about how many people say they believe in God or attend Mass regularly or which denomination or faith they adhere to. But we need more clarity concerning what questions people are really answering when they respond to such a survey.

As an aside, let me also note that at times the results of such surveys are often interpreted and spun in not the most objective way. For example, if it is said that 60% of Irish people attend regular Sunday Mass, the comments are that numbers are down, that we have fallen behind Poland and that somehow we are on the brink of the end. What political party would be gasping for breath if it were told, not only that it had the support of 60% of the population, but that 60% of the population attended Cumman meetings every week! There is no room for complacency, but Christianity is healthily present in Irish society.

But let me come back to the question of what people mean when they answer a survey saying they believe in God.

Belief is a complex matter. Because of its nature it is difficult to quantify. People will answer questions about belief in different ways. Belief is not identical with Church affiliation. There are non-practicing Catholics who are genuine believers and there are also many who practice but who may not really believe. I have even seen recently the term "non-believing priest"!

Faith is about a relationship, and relationships can be of differing quality. What I would be interested in learning is not about numbers but about the quality of the faith relationship.

Personal trust

My task as a bishop is to preach and witness to the word of God and to preside over a Church community which will lead people and communities to live a deeper personal relationship with Jesus Christ; a relationship that stimulates hope, meaning, identity and freedom.

In ordinary language, having faith in a person is about trust. Faith is something that goes beyond seeing or knowing. There is a deeply personal dimension to the concept of faith, as opposed to seeing or knowing. Faith requires personal trust and is impossible without that love which recognizes the fidelity and the trustworthiness of the other in whom I place my ...

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