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 debate on the Assisted Dying Bill provoked strong views on both sides. The Bill proposed giving people the “right-to-die”. If the Bill had become law then terminally ill patients in England and Wales with less than 6 months to live, who understood the alternatives, would have been able to make a choice about the time of their death. Doctors would have been able to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs which the patient themselves would have administered. After a full, and often emotional, debate the Bill was defeated by 330 votes to 118.
Death is a fact of life. All of us will one day die, but we don’t know either the time of our death or the way in which we will die. Recently I visited the place where a friend who died at the age of 80 is buried and nearby was the grave of the baby daughter of some friends of ours who died when she was just a few hours old. I have ministered to people struggling with cruelly disabling conditions such as multiple sclerosis and motor neuron disease and also those dying of cancer. I have felt the pain of families watching a loved one dying and have also seen the amazing love and care with which the dying people have been surrounded. The love of the family, and the dedicated care of nurses and doctors, has meant so much to the dying person.
It is right for us to ask questions about death and dying. Anyone who has watched and cared for a loved one who is dying has asked the questions death raises. What is the meaning of life? Why do we die? Is there hope beyond death? Is heaven real?
The answers to all the big questions of life are found in Jesus. He is the eternal Son of God and came into this world to give us hope. He lived a perfect life and then, in love, gave up his life when he died on the cross to take away the sins of the world. His resurrection on the third day was the glorious affirmation of the decisive victory he had won on the cross. The apostle Paul wrote, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”