In a country that is perhaps the most Catholic of any nation in the world, some estimates show that while well over 90% of Ireland’s citizens identify with the church of Rome, only 18 percent of them attend Sunday Mass, down from nearly 90 percent just 30 years ago. Scandals involving priests, orphans, and lately, the abortion vote  have created an environment that is openly hostile toward centuries of tradition.
In June, I attended Sunday Mass at John’s Lane Catholic Church in Dublin, Ireland, an awesomely beautiful church built beginning in 1867 for what was clearly a large and vibrant community. On this day, during the first of two scheduled Masses, there were perhaps 30 people in the pews. The elderly priest was alone on the altar. He lit the candles, then started service. There were no readers, no altar servers, no lectors, no music.
The homily on this Sunday was of overcoming Church scandals that have rocked Ireland in recent years. The priest didn’t make excuses for the faults of the clergy. Instead, he talked of healing. But his message was heard by so few. I was heartbroken for him, for the congregation, and for Ireland.
I was unable to get that empty church out of my mind and finally shared the story with Fr. John Riley, chaplain for the Augustine Institute in Denver. His response brought me some comfort. “Ireland has not been properly catechized,” he said. He went on to explain that the people in Ireland were taught to follow rules, but were not made to see the overwhelming love and goodness of God. So when those who made the rules broke them, the people lost faith in the institution.
Yet, Fr. Riley said, all is not lost. “God is getting people ready for the new evangelization,” he said. He shared an article that he recently wrote on this very topic:
Tough times! Scandals in the Church. A society consumed with greed and a shameless pursuit of money and material prosperity. Many sincere Catholics demoralized and falling away. On the political scene, chaos…confusion…disgraceful ambition, factions, and incessant fighting. And looming in the East, the threat of Radical Islam. Certainly “the worst of times”…
He was referring to the 13th Century, in the days when Saints Dominic and Francis of Assisi began their evangelizing ministries that would radically change the way the Church operated and the way the faithful worshiped. Fr. Riley pointed out that the Church has seen scandals throughout its history because it is peopled by the fallen. In other words, all of us. Yet it has survived and grown steadily in spite of its flawed human members, just as it did during the days of Dominic and Francis, through the grace of the Holy Spirit and the will of God.
“Within a single generation of Francis and Dominic’s embarking on their respective ‘adventures’ the tide had turned,” writes Fr. Riley. Now it’s up to today’s practicing Catholics to figure out how to evangelize those who have fallen away – how to witness to their brothers and sisters through their own behaviors while healing those who have been hurt.
The need for God is written on the human heart. The key is to make sure our own home churches are welcoming as the body of Christ through the Eucharist.
Making Churches Welcoming
In the United States, more and more churches are instituting Welcome Tables and New Parishioner Welcome Receptions to help embrace those interested in growing in their Catholic faith or in joining a Catholic parish community.
“It takes 10 times more effort to make a new customer than to keep the current one,” says Catholic marketing consultant and lay evangelist, Gail Coniglio. She says, “Keeping the Catholics in the pews Catholic is really the essence of the New Evangelization. Catechizing the baptized.”
Coniglio leads the Welcome Table ministry at her church. This is one of the reasons why she has teamed up with popular EWTN Catholic television radio host, Teresa Tomeo, to begin Beyond Sunday : Becoming a 24/7 Catholic, a new parish evangelization movement that is just starting to sweep across America. Beyond Sunday offers a book and study, video series, and parish mission to help not only reach the average Catholic in the pew, but “Chreasters” – those Catholics who attend Mass only on Christmas and Easter.
The idea is that if more Catholics (and priests) were living out their faith seven days a week and actively growing in their relationship with Christ, it would change not only Ireland, but the world. Churches would be packed and Catholics would want to receive Jesus in the Eucharist more often. Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to Ireland is a reason for hope and an opportunity to draw many back to church.
Let us pray for the Holy Father with this prayer of St. Patrick , patron saint of Ireland, and ask him to intercede for us to become instruments of the New Evangelization in this hurting world.