The visit of Pope Francis to Ireland has revealed the depth of disillusionment many Catholic people in the country feel with their church. The Catholic Church has been rocked by revelations of paedophile priests, sexual abuse in Catholic-run orphanages, and the exploitation of women in mother-and-baby homes. When Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979 more than a million people attended the mass at Phoenix Park in Dublin. Attendance at the mass celebrated by Pope Francis was estimated at 200,000.
According to the Irish Statistics Office, Ireland remains a predominantly Catholic country but the percentage of the population who identify as Catholics has fallen. In 1981, just 2 years after the papal visit, Catholics made up 93% of the population. By 2016 that number had fallen to 78%, of whom only 44% attended church weekly. The fall in church attendance is most marked amongst younger people. There has also been a sharp decline in the number of candidates for the priesthood. The average age of Catholic priests in Ireland is now 70.
What has happened to those who have turned away from the Catholic Church? Many of those under the age of 50 now describe themselves as having no religious faith. The increasing secularisation of Irish society has also been seen in recent referendums on same-sex marriage and abortion in which two-thirds of people rejected the teaching of the Catholic Church and voted for change.
The heart of Christianity is focussed not on any particular church but on the person of Jesus. All of us fall short of God’s standards and need to experience his forgiveness. Jesus didn’t come into the world for self-righteous people who feel no sense of need but for those who know their guilt and who want to change. Many people all over the world have listened to the words of Jesus and have found new life and hope in experiencing his love.
At one point in the ministry of Jesus people who had been following him turned away from him. Jesus asked his closest disciples, “Are you also going to leave?” Simon Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” At times of crisis, when people have seriously let us down and it’s hard to find answers to our questions, the best thing to do is not to turn away from God but to draw near to his Son and to listen to what he says.
The results of the 2011 Census for England and Wales reported a decline in the number of people identifying themselves as Christians and an increase in the number of those saying they had no religion. How significant are these figures for our nation? What influence will this change have on our society? Does it matter that fewer people believe in God? Does this affect the way they live?
A legal expert once asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it, Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Jesus clearly linked a wholehearted love for God with a true love for our neighbours. When we do not recognise God’s right to be first in our lives, this has inevitable consequences for those around us. When self is king, when what I want reigns supreme, then the rights and needs of those around me count for nothing.
There are signs that this is what is happening in our society. We affirm a mother’s right to choose whether or not to have a termination of her pregnancy. But does not the unborn baby also have rights? If we were that unborn baby what choice would we want our mother to make? Sexual predators who abuse children and vulnerable adults feel they have the right to fulfil their perverted desires without any thought for the devastating consequences for those they abuse. How would they feel if someone did the same thing to them? The growing population of elderly people is becoming a burden to the rest of our society. Some say it is not fair that younger people should have to pay the cost of caring for the elderly. But when we are old, how will we want people to care for us?
The commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves is a sure guide when we have to make moral choices. We owe a moral duty to God and to each other to seek to obey this commandment. Jesus said, “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” Future happiness for us and for our children depends on us rediscovering a real love for one another through a living relationship with God.
We live in a complex world in which there are striking contrasts. This week the population of the world will reach 7 billion. 60% of the world’s population lives in Asia, including China and India, which account for 37% of the total. The rate of growth is rapid; from 5 billion in 1987 to 6 billion in 1999, and to 7 billion in 2011. The projection is to 8 billion by 2025. The implications of this growth in terms of the demands on finite resources are very significant. Wealthy parts of the world such as Europe and North America have a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth.
Amongst the billions of the people in the world every single person is precious. This was vividly seen last week in the amazing rescue of 18 day old baby Azra, who was pulled from the rubble of a collapsed apartment block in Ercis, in eastern Turkey, two days after the earthquake. It was very moving to see her being gently and lovingly held by her rescuers, and then being reunited with her mother and grandmother, who had also been rescued. Her father is still missing.
Last week marked the 44th anniversary of the Abortion Act in the UK. During that time there have been 7 million abortions in the UK. Each year there are more than 40 million abortions worldwide. The annual number of deaths worldwide, from all causes, is 56 million. In 2008 out of a total of 208 million pregnancies worldwide, 41 million (20%) ended in induced abortions. Many of these abortions are medically unsafe and some mothers die. Every mother undergoing an abortion procedure needs loving support and care.
In Psalm 24 the Psalmist declares, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it, for he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters.” At the beginning of time he blessed the people he had created and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it.” The earth on which we live is unique. There is no other planet which is so wonderfully fertile with an abundance of water and life. This shows the Lord’s kindness to us all. His ultimate purpose in Jesus is that there will be a new heaven and earth filled with a great multitude of people that no-one can count from every nation, tribe and people.