Since the mid-90s secularisation in Ireland has been discernible, with sharp declines in mass attendance, vocations, regular family prayer and Catholic sacramental engagement. This period dovetails with allegations of sexual abuse amongst the clergy, and the mistreatment of unmarried mothers (Fallen Women) in religious-run institutions (Magdalene Laundries, Mother and Baby Homes). It also coincided with increased urbanization arising from the ‘Celtic Tiger’ (1995-2008).
Technological Adoption, Disconnection and Belonging
Today, regular mass attendance is low among children, youth and middle-aged persons. However, pre-Covid funeral attendance was generally high, partially due to close-knit rural relationships. Churches responded to the Covid crisis by increased technological adoption including ‘mass on demand’ and live ceremonies. This opens churches up to new, international audiences, who increasingly desire flexible engagement through hand-held technologies. However, a revenue crisis prevails due to falling church donations and mental health issues are growing among the general population. Clergy who regularly say mass without congregations also report feelings of disconnection from their communities.
The expansion of online provision offers scope for people who desire some emotional connections. However, when Covid ends in the longer term this could exacerbate decreases in regular mass-going, thereby deepening secularisation and sporadic engagement. Restrictions on mass attendance and prayer meetings in private houses impact markedly on rural, elderly dwellers that frequently rely on these events for friendships and social contact.
A More (Technologically) Engaged Church: Flexibility, New Routines and Communication
After the pandemic, the church is likely to be more technologically responsive than any time in its history. However, how it communicates with parishioners and the social legitimacy accorded to its message is also likely to be influenced by other events, including the church’s response to survivors of Mother and Baby Homes and similar institutions. As we write this commentary, international news is dominated by coverage of the Irish state’s apology to survivors of these institutions and the percentage the church will pay to victims in future redress schemes. The schism between several sectors of the Irish population and the church is indeed, deep and the church’s response and how it communicates (virtually and face-to-face) is now more important than ever for its survival.
It is also likely that some congregations who attended face-to-face services pre-Covid will continue to use internet technologies to access ceremonies, moving away from face-to-face engagement, partially due to new routines and flexibility. However, the findings of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation are likely to influence church attendance (both online and face-to-face) for some time to come.
Of course, Covid-19 might also bolster attendance, at least to some degree. As the crisis lingers, people’s desires for belonging and connection grow stronger and the spaces that individuals engage with after Covid are likely to be more diverse than in pre-Covid times. However, other long-term implications for the church with regards to revenue-generation, mental health and the sustainability of church-based family support services that are largely reliant on public donations, are yet to be realised.
The impact of Covid-19 on secularisation, emotional wellbeing of parishioners and clergy, communication and the social legitimacy of the Church post-Covid, it likely to be transformative. How and in what ways, remains to be seen.
Dr Joan Cronin is Course Co-ordinator and part-time Lecturer at the Centre of Continuing Adult Education, University College, Cork, Ireland.
Dr Lisa Moran is a Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences at Edge Hill University.