Thursday, January 31, 2008

The crisis facing the Catholic Church, as numbers fall

Bishop Eamon Walsh, when addressing the customary small attendance at 12 noon Mass last Sunday in St Michael’s Parish Church, spoke of parochial priests of the Dublin Diocese being reduced by one third of their current number in nine years’ time. Even more alarming was his claim that the already-elderly priests in Ireland’s largest diocese will be less than half their present numbers in 12 years’ time.

Adding to the difficulties facing the Irish Catholic Church into the future is the certainty that those priests who remain at the helm of local parishes in 2020 will almost entirely consist of elderly men. Bishop Walsh spoke of the possible amalgamation of parishes and the employment of lay people in roles unspecified, but presumably roles that are presently occupied by Catholic clergy.

Unquestionably, the Catholic Church in Ireland is facing into an evolving crisis and one which will not easily be resolved. The fall-off in Sunday church attendances has been noticeable for some years past, coinciding with a fall-off in vocations for the priesthood and religious orders.

We have seen the departure of the Christian Brothers from Athy and the closure of the local Convent of Mercy, all due to the failure to secure new entrants for those religious orders.

The possibility is that missionary countries to which Irish priests, nuns and brothers once brought the message of the Gospel may in the future be required to provide religious personnel for the Irish Church.

There is as much need today for missionary work among the Irish people as there was in darkest Africa a few generations ago. One gets the impression that the role of the Catholic Church in Ireland has remained unchanged for hundreds of years.

An obedient people born and reared in the Catholic faith had in the past little need for the work of missionaries. The Church marshalled and directed, while the people obeyed, and the nature of the Church’s role remained the same for generations. The unquestioning obedience that once marked the Irish people’s attitude to religion is now gone, yet the Church appears not to have adapted to the change in society.

In our parish, more and more parishioners fail to attend Sunday Mass in the parish church which was built just over 40 years ago with the hard-earned pounds, shillings and pence of once loyal local families. The children of those families are now by and large staying away from the church, the building of which their parents and grandparents worked so hard to finance.

The answer in the short term will undoubtedly give us amalgamated parishes, repeating the experiences of the Church of Ireland in the years following the founding of the Irish Free State. The long-term solution lies with the likes of the relatively youthful Fr Joe McDonald and his peers. The ability to reach out beyond the dwindling congregation at Sunday Masses is the challenge.

Fr Joe’s Sunday sermons have brought a new dimension to church attendances in St Michael’s. In the week following the Christmas holidays, I listened to him give a homily at 12 o’clock Mass which perhaps was the most stimulating and thought-provoking sermon I had ever heard delivered in the parish church. It was a wonderful occasion and many who were at that Mass have commented to me since in similar terms. Our new curate deserves a bigger audience and the hope is that he will get it in St Michael’s rather than elsewhere. After all, the parish church of St Michael’s in Athy holds the unique distinction of having hosted over 160 years ago the first mission held in an Irish parish. Maybe the resurgence of the Irish Catholic Church will start in the town where the Order of the Black Friars have had a presence for the past 750 years.

One man who, like those of his generation, always remained faithful to the church of his birth was Freddie Farrell. He passed away last week aged 78 years. Freddie was a daily Mass-goer who served Mass in the Dominican Church on the very morning that he suffered a stroke from which he would die days later.

A Laois man, Freddie was proud of his county of birth and despite having lived all of his adult life in Athy never lost affection for the O’Moore county. In his younger days Freddie, with his sister Mona, was a champion Irish dancer. Friends of the legendary Rory O’Connor, Freddie and his sister won innumerable feisanna in the 1940s and for a time he taught Irish dancing in the town hall. After attending the Christian Brothers School in Athy, he worked with his father John who had a haulage business and when his father retired in 1961 Freddie took over the business. Ten years previously, Freddie married Betty Blanchfield of St Patrick’s Avenue and they celebrated 55 years of married life in May of last year.

The love of Irish dancing was passed on to his daughter Marie, who currently operates the Farrell Caffrey School of Dancing. Marie was brought to Dublin each week by her father to take lessons from Ireland’s premier Irish dance master, Rory O’Connor.

Freddie also provided transport in the 1960s for the variety group of which Marie was a member and which toured extensively throughout Ireland for almost ten years. Included in that group were the legendary Casey Dempsey and Tom Farrell.

I recall Freddie operating what was previously Dowling’s and later Kehoe’s public house in Offaly Street for a few years in the late 1960s. He operated the haulage business at the same time, extending his business interests into minibus hire and I believe that he may have been the first minibus operator in this area.

A very likeable man, Freddie continued working up to two years ago. Fr Ross McCauley of the Dominican Friary spoke of Freddie when receiving his remains in the parish church as “a man who was always willing to go that extra mile”.

Those who knew Freddie recognised only too well how appropriate it was to describe him in that way. He went out of his way on so many occasions to help others that it could truly be said of him that he was generous to a fault.

Freddie Farrell, champion hornpipe dancer in his younger days, was a very honourable and likeable man and on his passing we extend sympathy to his wife Betty and his family.

On Wednesday 6 February, the Water to Wine Theatre Company will take to the stage in the Civic Theatre, Tallaght for four nights with a production of John MacKenna’s new play Corner Boys. The play is a tragic/comic story of three corner boys and two women set in a small Irish village in 1963 during President Kennedy’s visit to Ireland and his subsequent assassination. The play has a cast of five, including the playwright himself, and the director is Marian Brophy of Carlow.

Corner Boys will go on tour following the run in Tallaght, taking in 20 provincial theatres including three nights in the town hall, Athy, on 3, 4 and 5 March. John MacKenna is one of our most prolific writers, bringing his writing talents to novels, short stories and plays and proving adept at each of these literary genres.

The play Corner Boys will bring back memories for those of us over 50 years of age who will remember Carolan’s corner and O’Rourke Glynn’s corner as the local ‘seats of wisdom’.

A list of theatres across the country where Corner Boys will play can be obtained by e-mailing watertowinetheatre@hotm

No comments: