I remember as a teenager in Castlebar going to mass regularly on a Saturday evening. It wasn't that I was especially religious. I was on the edge of the social scene and it was a great way of meeting up with people and finding out where the action was later on that night.
I remember at Sunday mass in my father's village the young men would congregate in the back seats or outside the door and discuss the past week's events for the length of the sermon. Sometimes the priest could not be heard such was the murmur from the back.
And I remember my grandfather who, after each week's labours on the farm were complete, would attend mass on Sunday morning and follow it with a warm pint of Guinness and a game of cards among friends and acquaintances, in his local pub.
We're not going to mass like we used to. Catholic Church attendances have been falling steadily over the last twenty years. Sex scandals among the clergy have accelerated the downfall. Indeed the revelations of hidden mistresses and children, and later of paedophilia and cover-ups, provided a tangible and indisputable reason to leave for many people who were already struggling to see the relevance of the Church to their lives.
But while we are right to celebrate the weakening of the stranglehold that the Catholic Church had on our lives, we need to give serious thought to what is going to fill the gaping hole that its decline has left in our society.
There was much more to the Catholic Church than priests and rules when I was growing up. The actual business of the church itself was secondary to the social space that it enabled. It was one of the few places where all generations and classes would congregate (the population being predominantly Catholic). It was a place where we could look our neighbours in the eye and get a feel for what was on their minds. It was a physical expression of how we were bound together as a community.
Because --like it or not-- we are bound together. Despite our new found affluence and independence we are still impacted by others around us. Only now it is different. Now we don't know who they are.
The juvenile delinquents and mischief-makers that were once the sons or daughters of so-and-so from over the road are now just anonymous faces caught on closed-circuit TV cameras. The car that drives slowly by the school playground may be a stranger with evil intentions or just a concerned parent who has children in the same class as ours. The drugs that are stupefying our youth are falling from the sky. We just don't know. And in our fear of the unknown we are retreating from our public spaces, abandoning them to the bogeymen of our imaginations.
Golf clubs and private gyms have replaced public amenities as the places where we socialise. In these places we can feel safe among people who are 'like us'. And there lies the problem. If we only experience and connect with people who are like us then we can have no sense of the broader world around us. We cannot understand the motivations, ideas and actions of those people 'out there'.
I'm not suggesting that we have a nationwide group-hug. We don't have to like the people 'out there', share their viewpoint or invite them into our homes. But we have to know where they're coming from if we are going to have a society where we can co-exist side by side rather than live in irrational fear of each other.
The anti-globalisation movement 'Reclaim the Streets' has gained publicity through various stunts it has performed in cities around the world -mainly by obstructing traffic, organising impromptu street parties and cycling over everything-- but these stunts distract from the bigger point. We need to reclaim the public space.
We need a place where we have contact with all the people around us -not just the ones we like. In the past the Catholic Church provided this space for many communities in Ireland and now that it has declined in influence nothing has risen to replace it. A return to the old dominance of the Catholic Church is not desirable. It's not useful either. The increased diversity of our population means that the Church is no longer a common denominator for the various strands of our community.
We need to find a new common denominator. And we need to find it fast.
About the author
The author has had various encounters with the Catholic Church but so far none have been salacious enough to warrant media attention. As an altar boy he did once spill the thurible of incense on the altar during benediction, burning both the altar and the hands of the unfortunate priest who recovered it. He does not ascribe any special religious significance to this event.