A selected study of the attitudes of young people towards Faith and Spirituality
“A selected study of the attitudes of young people towards their faith and spirituality,
and the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland”
Written by Padraig Swan (student no 2010228)
BA in Humanities Pastoral Theology 2010 / 11
All Hallows College
Supervisor : Donal Harrington
Introduction Page 3
Chapter 1 – The context for the research study Page 5
Chapter 2 – The research study findings Page 11
Chapter 3 – Insights from the research Page 20
Chapter 4 - The future challenges for the Catholic Church in Ireland Page 26
References Page 31
Bibliography Page 33
Appendices Page 34
This essay builds on a specific topic I explored in an earlier short essay as part of the BA in
Humanities course where I briefly wrote about ‘what was happening with things spiritual in
today’s culture’. One topic I wrote about was the role of schools in faith formation for the
next generation of the members of the Catholic Church in Ireland. It was not possible to do
this at any length in the short essay, so in this extended essay I have chosen to take a deeper,
albeit selected, look at the attitudes of young people at school going age towards their faith,
and how this relates to the wider experience of the Catholic Church in Ireland. I did this by
way of a structured questionnaire to students in two inner city secondary schools in Dublin.
The outcomes, while limited, will serve to illustrate some varied and typical attitudes of a
select group of young people in two, quite different Catholic schools, and how this, if it was
representative of the larger population, might affect the future of the Catholic Church in
Ireland. I am grateful to the students and the school teachers and principals for their co-
operation in helping me conduct the research.
Why focus on schools? The role of a school is becoming much more important in the
tradition of handing on the Catholic faith because of the diminishing role that faith plays in
the life of the family and the parish, institutions which were once pillars of a triangular
support for faith formation; family, parish and school.
The importance of focusing on religious education in Catholic schools is further heightened
by the recent decision by the Irish government to set up a forum to examine moving the
ownership of up to 50% of Catholic primary schools from the Catholic Church to the State.
While this has been welcomed by the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, it
further challenges the Catholic Church to examine how it can hand on its faith to the next
generation when it has a smaller role of patronage in primary schools. It is likely to bring
about a situation where the teaching of religious education at primary level will be optional
for children as it is in second level. Should this become the norm, it will mean there is a
greater chance that children will receive no formal or informal religious education in the
future as there are less and less families engaging with faith at home or at parish level. This
indeed may be the greatest challenge for the Catholic Church in Ireland and its future
In this essay, I will look at the context of the Catholic Church in Ireland that this research is
set in, and look briefly at the developmental stages of faith as might be applied to the
respondents. I will also look at how this affects faith and faith formation, particularly within
the education system as detailed in my research, and then look at ways how the Catholic
Church might face the challenges of the future as presented by the research.
Chapter 1 : The context for the research study.
There is much written about the current position of the Irish Catholic Church and how it is at
a crossroads. O’Hanlon SJ (2011, p. 10) says that ‘the situation is grave’. The child abuse
scandals highlighted by the Ferns, Ryan and Murphy reports have had a dramatic effect on
how the Church is perceived, and the once inter twined relationship between Church and state
has also changed dramatically.
There is a new vision called for. O’Hanlon (2011, p.9) states,
‘far from being a light of the nations, we often, today, experience the Catholic Church
as a source of embarrassment and shame. The immediate cause of this is the awful
reality of clerical child abuse and the serious mishandling of this by church leaders.’
He goes on to say that ‘we are being asked by God, it seems (to me), to re-examine what it
means to be church, to imagine a new vision, and to begin to take steps to implement this
vision’. The research carried out for this essay will present a number of findings that
illustrate the challenging background for this new vision, and the findings invite us to come
up with some concrete ways to put flesh on this vision if there is to be a future at all for the
Catholic Church in Ireland.
The new vision spoken about by O’Hanlon (2011, p. 55-57) is one modelled on Vatican II,
and intrinsic to this vision is the (re) definition, understanding and theology of church.
Therefore, this is a key question in the research – ‘what is your definition of the church?’
O Hanlon (2011, p.55) speaks of this Vatican II vision as follows:
‘the vision of church that emerged from the council was that of church as communio,
a union of persons in a unique sense – created by the Holy Spirit....The church is a
mystery or sacrament (light for the world), a sign, of this divine communio....’
He goes on to say (p.56) that, while this vision was new, it was also radical, and one that
never really got off the ground, hence, our need to re-vision:
‘All this is a huge shift from the dominant hierarchical and overly-juridical vision that
was dominant before the council, but in large parts it is a shift that we have not yet
affected. The baptised faithful, the laity, are in some sense still the amateurs, while the
‘real church’, in the mentalities of too many people, is the hierarchy.’
It is worth noting this as a background and context to the responses received in the survey
about the church. The questions asked were about the definition of the church, how inclusive
it is or is not, and what future church the respondents would like to see.
The diminishing role of ‘the parish’ in the life of young people is highlighted by some recent
surveys carried out on mass attendance. A study carried out in Sept 2010 (O’Mahony, 2010.
p.4), stated that ‘in the 1970’s, regular mass attendance (meaning weekly) for Catholics in
Ireland was recorded at between 88% and 95%’. By 2006 it had dropped to 43%. A similar
survey carried out by Mac Gréil (2009, p.30), showed that for young people of second level
school age, weekly mass attendance is at 34.1%. Clear evidence of a steady decline in mass
attendance. While mass attendance alone is not a complete indicator of engagement in parish
life, it is traditionally the main way people engage with their local parish. Hence, lower
numbers attending mass, in my opinion, most likely indicates a lesser role for the parish in
people’s faith and faith formation.
Relating faith formation to the family context, Tuohy and Cairns (2000, p. 61), as part of a
research survey, comment on how religion as a value is practiced in the home, and state,
‘one way in which this religious culture was promoted was through devotional
practices, especially going to mass, and the sacraments. A common element of family
life for many interviewees had been going to Sunday mass as a family....the young
people had opted out of mass going in their middle or late teens’.
So, have parents a role? Mac Gréil (2009. p. 85) asks questions about how parents see the
importance of ‘handing on the faith’, and how children would share the same religious views
as their parents. His findings of 2007-08 refer to the same question asked in 1988-89, and the
responses of 2007-08 show that 24% of parents say ‘let them (children) make up their own
minds’ compared to just 4% in 1988-89. This shift puts a greater onus on young people to
find their own way in exploring their faith. In a culture which offers less and less support, and
a culture which seems to value religion less and less, the Catholic Church is yet again
challenged to respond.
Supporting earlier comments about the role of schools in faith formation, Tuohy and Cairns
(2000, p.74) also talk about it, highlighting that,
‘while interviewees readily identified their schools as Catholic schools, or schools run
by specific religious orders,....very little reference was made to specific religious
activities within the school, or to conscious influences on the young person’s
development,...it was almost as if the religious influence of the school passed the
While acknowledging that Tuohy and Cairns’ survey was carried out in 2000 when religious
education was not a teaching subject on the school curriculum (it was only introduced in
2000 for the Junior Certificate and 2003 for the Leaving Certificate), my 2011 research
indicates that 70% of respondents say there is a faith formation programme in their school in
addition to the teaching of religious education.
There is much written about the stages of faith development and it is important to have an
overview of these stages so as to better understand the research findings. The most well
known writer on the stages of faith development is James Fowler in 1981 and, in spite of
some criticisms from Ford-Grabowsky and Jacobs (Benson, 2003. p.126), Fowlers views are
still highly regarded. Fowler’s stages of faith are linked to an individual’s cognitive, moral
and spiritual development and they draw on previous studies carried out by psychologists
Piaget, Erikson and Kohlberg.
Fowler (1995, p. 113) and Benson writing about Fowler (2003, p. 125), describe the 6 stages
of faith development as follows:
- Stage 1 : Undifferentiated / Intuitive-Projective faith. This stage is at infancy and
early childhood where basic love, trust and attachment predominate and it is
influenced by parental example. The images of God are created predominantly
through imagination and projection of the inner world to the outer realities.
- Stage 2 : Mythical-Literal faith. This is the school years where faith and images of
God are created by absorbing stories, beliefs and practices of the group and young
people understand them literally.
- Stage 3 : Synthetic-Conventional faith. This is the adolescent years when beliefs
and values are deeply felt but unexamined, and faith is conforming and obedient
- Stage 4 : Individuative-Reflective faith. This is the young adulthood stage when
self examination and critical reflection on beliefs and values lead to a more
personalised and self-responsible faith system.
- Stage 5 : Conjunctive faith. This is the ‘mid-life and beyond’ stage when
previously repressed aspects of faith can come to the surface again through re-
integration leading to a more fulfilled and energising faith.
- Stage 6 : Universalising faith : This is the later life stage when the person takes on
the universal viewpoint and identifies with the wider human and transcendent
I will make reference to these stages in the insights for the research study.
The research gives a snapshot into the maturity of the selected young people’s faith and how
it is formed at this stage of their lives. This is one of the specific objectives of this essay; to
determine the maturity of school children’s faith in Irish Catholic second level schools, and
how this might affect the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
Cardinal Hume, as cited by Grace (2002, p.3), while acknowledging that he was commenting
on Catholic schools in the English education system, his reflection arguably can be true for
the Irish context too when he says;
‘Catholic schools are increasingly popular, not only because of the good academic
results they often achieve, but also because many parents sense that a Catholic school
might help their children to develop the self-discipline, moral resilience and spiritual
maturity so necessary in surviving exposure as young adults to the winds of
secularism in our society’.
Grace (2002, p. 236) refers to this as ‘spiritual capital’. He talks about any educational system
offering economic, social and cultural capital and ‘to this may be added, for the analysis of
faith-based schooling systems, the concept of spiritual capital. Spiritual capital is defined
(here) as resources of faith and values derived from commitment to a religious tradition.’
These resources and values are what the research also seeks to understand and why they
might be important to the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland, and indeed the whole of
society in Ireland.
Chapter 2 : The research study findings.
The research was based on a structured questionnaire (appendix 1) given to 58 students from
2 inner city second level schools in Dublin during the month of May 2011. The research
questionnaire and methodology were conducted to the highest standards and they were
approved by the Research and Ethics committee in All Hallows College, Dublin. The
research looked at the student’s image of God and what shaped this image; their attitudes
toward faith and spirituality; the church and how they could be part of it; and what kind of
church they would like to see in the future.
The focus of the questions on God, faith, spirituality and church were deliberately specific as,
in my opinion, these are the benchmark indicators of our faith and how it is understood.
Ones image of God develops from an early age, possibly before primary school in the family
context, but it certainly gets formed at this early stage. Equally, the foundations of Christian
faith and Catholic faith are developed during primary school especially through preparation
for receiving the sacraments such as Confession, First Holy Communion and Confirmation.
As the young person enters teenage years and goes into second level education, these images,
attitudes and faith experiences are further developed and are likely to become embedded in
one’s life experience. The extent to how embedded they become depends on the family and
school environment and how faith has been taught and lived by the family, church or school
in the preceding years. The research, therefore, also seeks to understand how embedded faith
and spirituality are in the lives of the student respondents and how developed their faith is.
One acknowledges that the answers given are from a specific moment in time in the lives of
these young people, and that this moment is not indicative of the complete depth of their
understanding of faith as it is only representative of their limited experience of life and faith
during their early formative years.
The research can be broken into a number of different sections:
a. General information
b. Images of God
a. General information
There were 58 respondents, all students in second level. 25 students (43%) were in the
year cycle, 12 (21%) were in the 5th
year cycle, and 21 (36%) were in the 3rd
(Junior Certificate) cycle. There were 33 males (57%) from a private fee paying all-
boys school, and 25 females (43%) from an all-girls public school.
The boys’ school run an ‘in-house’ religious education programme that is a
combination of prayer, reflection, discussion, retreats and social outreach, as opposed
to following the Department of Education Religious Education curriculum. The 2
most popular primary objectives stated for this approach are ‘to encourage religious
beliefs’ and ‘to explore faith, spirituality and morality’ (see appendix 2).
The girls’ school offer the state curriculum at both Junior and Leaving Certificate
b. Images of God
Morwood (1997, p.8) in chapter one of his book talks very directly about ‘Our Images
of God’ when he states,
‘the way we image or imagine what “God” is like forms the foundation of our
religious beliefs. Changes in our image inevitably force changes to our way
of thinking about God, about ourselves, and about ourselves in relationship
He goes on to say that we will never fully understand God and that no matter how
best we try to describe God with images, ‘we need to be wary of supposing that our
mental model of God is actually what God is’ (Morwood, 1997, p.9). This introduces
God as being transcendent and omnipresent in our minds, our hearts and our world.
In the research, the question of ‘what is your image of God?’ is asked as a
foundational question, and the responses are quite interesting. The largest group, 28%,
have an image of God in one form or other as ‘an old man with a beard and long hair’,
while the next largest group state God is ‘creator, powerful and controlling’ (see
When asked ‘what has shaped this image of God?’, the responses bear out the
assumption that the school is a very important source of exploring faith, with 21% of
respondents saying school, religion class or teachers are what shaped their image of
God. (see appendix 4). The next highest response was ‘life experience’ at 17%.
Church/parish and family both came in at 12%. TV/films/stories also came in at 12%
with programmes such as ‘The Simpsons’ mentioned as a source of shaping an image
of God. Modern communication of TV and film are powerful tools in the lives of
young people, and all of society. The Church needs to be very aware of this in trying
to communicate its own message. When answering the question of ‘the image of
God’, 55% (32) responded with God as a male figure, and of these 69% (22) were
themselves male. Therefore, 40% (10) of all the female respondents responded stating
God was a male figure.
First of all a question was asked if the respondents understood there to be a difference
between ‘faith’ and ‘spirituality’. 50% (29) said there was a difference, while 38%
(22) said they didn’t know. Given a universal understanding which would state that
there is indeed a difference, it is encouraging to think that half of the respondents
would understand there to be a difference.
These questions were further expanded when the students were asked to describe what
faith is; whether it has a relationship with everyday life; and how to develop and
The majority of answers to the definition of faith were that ‘it is a trust in God’, 28%
(16) and the same number (28% - 16) responded saying ‘it’s a belief in a system / God
/ Spirituality’. (see appendix 5).
When asked if faith has any relationship to one’s everyday life, 47% (27) said yes and
29% (17) said no, while 19% (11) said they didn’t know or weren’t sure. Each
respondent was asked to explain how faith might / might not relate to life, and the
responses were 17% (9) saying that they ‘turn to God when in need / pray / at mass’,
while an equal amount (17% - 9) said they ‘do not consider faith part of everyday
life’. 14% (8) said that the see faith as part of their everyday life when they ‘strive to
be good / live life to the full’. However, the largest group of respondents to this
question gave no response 32% (19), perhaps also indicating ambivalence to the
relationship between faith and everyday life. (see appendix 6).
The survey asked ‘how does a person sustain their faith?’ and the highest responses
were ‘by prayer / reading the Bible’ at 26% (15), and ‘by going to mass / church
activities’ (17% - 10). A further 14% (8) of respondents said you can sustain your
faith by ‘belief and trust’, again emphasising the importance of trust in matters of
faith. 16% (9) said they didn’t know / weren’t sure. (see appendix 7)
In answer to the question ‘how does a person develop their faith?’, the highest
response at 24% (14) was ‘ by learning more about it / being open’. Similar to
sustaining faith, 14% (8) said you can develop faith ‘by belief / prayer’. There was an
equal number (14% - 8) who said they didn’t know / weren’t sure and 19% (11) gave
no information. (see appendix 8)
Finally, on faith, respondents were asked to rank the importance of faith from ‘very
important’ to ‘very un-important’. The overall majority, 43% (25), said it was very
important and important, as against 19% (11) who said it was un-important and very
un-important. The largest single group, 36% (21), responded saying it was neither
important nor un-important. This, perhaps again, re-enforces an attitude of
ambivalence towards faith among young people.
Similar to the questions on faith, the students were asked to describe what spirituality
is; whether it has a relationship with everyday life; and how to develop and sustain
Bearing in mind that 50% said that there was a difference between faith and
spirituality, it is not surprising that, aside from the 21% (12) that gave no information
to what the definition of spirituality is, 19% (11) said it’s an ‘inner peace’ and a
further 12% (7) said it was ‘something out there’. Another 9% (4) said ‘it was a sense
of good / nothing to do with God’. (see appendix 9).
When asked ‘does spirituality have a relationship to everyday life?’, the responses
were less pronounced than the same question for faith. 33% (19) said yes (v 47% for
faith). A further 29% (17) each said ‘no’ it doesn’t have a relationship to everyday
life, or they ‘don’t know / are not sure’. These responses challenge the often popular
claim by some people that they are ‘spiritual but not religious’. It may also raise the
question, ‘is there a clear understanding of what spirituality is?’
When asked to expand on spirituality’s relationship to life, it is therefore not
surprising that almost half, 43% (25), do not respond at all, and 15% (9) say ‘it has no
bearing to my life at all’. Of those that do respond with a particular answer, 17% (10)
say that it simply ‘supports me in life to a greater or lesser degree’. (see appendix 10).
This is further supported by the fact that 28% (17) do not give a response and 22%
(13) say ‘they don’t know or are not sure’ to the question of ‘how you could sustain
spirituality?’. Nonetheless, 22% (17) also state that it can be sustained through ‘prayer
/ reflection / meditation’. (see appendix 11). This lends itself to the broad definition
and understanding of spirituality as something ‘inner’, and that it can be achieved or
sustained possibly through non religious means, e.g. yoga or meditation.
Given all the answers to questions about spirituality, one wonders ‘how do you
develop spirituality’ in the first place?, It is not surprising that 56% (33) do not
respond at all to this question or they say they ‘don’t know / are not sure’. Again, it
raises the question of the level of understanding of spirituality.
There is a slight anomaly to the overall responses when each one is asked to rank
spirituality on a scale of ‘very important’ to ‘very un-important’. The majority, 33%
(19), said it was ‘neither important nor un-important’, but a higher group are on the
‘important’ side of the scale 36% (21), as against the ‘un-important’, 24% (14), hence
The first question, ‘what is your definition of church?’ highlights a very clear
response. 53% (31) of the respondents said the church is ‘a building’. A further 7%
(4) said it was ‘a place to pray or receive support etc’, again a notion of a building,
therefore, it can be said that 60% associate the church as a building, the largest single
response to any of the questions asked in the whole survey. A further 14% (8) state
that the church is ‘the hierarchy’ or ‘an organisation’.
These are far from the definition of church espoused by Vatican II and probably
explain why this model of church has not been popularised. It suggests a need for
education on the ‘new’ theology of church to the next generation if there is ever to be
‘a shift’ of attitude, as O’Hanlon calls for. The closest definition given to this vision
of communio is from 7% (4) of the respondents when they say it’s ‘the Body of Christ
/ a Christian community’. (see appendix 12)
Perhaps it is no wonder then that 41% (24) of these young people say that they ‘do not
feel included in the church’ when asked in the survey. 21% (12) said they do ‘feel
included’ and 31% (18) say they feel included ‘sometimes’. (see appendix 13)
When asked what is the reason they do not feel included, the majority 23% (13) say
that they ‘do not go to church or they have chosen not to get involved’. This
emphasises the sense of disconnect that some young people have with the church. A
possible reason for this is in the response given by 16% (9) of the respondents when
they say that the church ‘is old fashioned / is only for old people / it has no place for
young people’. (see appendix 14). Some of the positive reasons given how young
people feel included are that ‘the church is a community and everyone is included’
(7%, 4) or that ‘the school provides opportunities to be involved’ (3%, 2).
If a young person wanted to be involved, the survey asked ‘what ways could they?’,
and the majority, 41% (24), said by ’going to mass / liturgy’, while a further 33% (19)
said by getting involved ‘in other activities like pilgrimages or retreats’.
On the opposite side, the survey asked ‘what could the church do to involve young
people?’, and while 21% (12) gave no information and 12% (7) said they didn’t know
/ weren’t sure, 26% (15) did say the church could help get them involved by ‘giving
guidance or advice and be a place to be listened to’. Perhaps somewhat related to this,
9% (5) said that ‘confession is important’. A further 10% (6) said the church should
be a ‘peaceful place to go or get away to’ and another 10% (6) said that the church
‘should run specific activities for young people to develop and sustain faith’. (see
Taking all of these views into consideration, a final key question was asked in the
survey, ‘what kind of church would you like to see in the future?’ Inevitably there
were mixed responses, but the majority, 24% (14) said it should be ‘a welcoming,
inclusive place of love’, and a further 14% (8) said something similar, saying it should
be ‘a safe place to go that’s trustworthy, honest and less corrupt’. Another interesting
set of responses was that 15% (9) said ‘the same as now / no change’, indicating a
certain level of satisfaction from some young people. (see appendix 16)
Chapter 3 – Insights from the research.
All the responses are not altogether surprising given the stages of faith referred to by Fowler,
therefore, one expects these students to be at stage 2 and 3, which is borne out somewhat by
their responses. Their images of God are generally quite literal and unexamined. It does raise
the question for the school and the wider Christian community about how we are shaping
these images of God and how can the Church encourage young people to be more critical in
their thinking about their image of God and to realise that this is foundational to their whole
religious belief system. It may be too simplistic to assume that Fowlers stage developments
will continue, and that we expect these basic images of God will be expanded in the future. I
feel there is more that can be done at this early stage to encourage young people to critically
examine what their images of God are and how they are formed.
The images mentioned in the survey responses indicate a very traditional image of God, yet if
we look at the icons, pictures and the stained glass windows in churches, is it any wonder that
young people see ‘God as a man with a long beard’. These, along with TV and films, most
often show God in this way. While one cannot definitely say what God does indeed look
like, the challenge for us all as Christians, is to see God in a new way.
Morwood (1997, p.17) says that
‘the challenge may be daunting for most of us, as Christians, to face. But in facing it
we may discover a God greater and more life-giving, more freeing and more infinitely
loving than we have ever imagined. This reason alone will make exploring the
He further explains that this could lead to many questions and confusion, but out of this
confusion can come ‘conversion of the mind and heart’. He concludes that ‘Jesus disturbed
people this way’.
The response that ‘school was a primary source for what shaped the image of God’ supports
the view about how much the family and the parish are in decline in their role as a place to
learn about faith. Even ‘life experience’ is ranked higher than family and church among the
respondents, although life experience could include family and church. Nonetheless, I feel
this creates a clear need for the Catholic Church to offer a more structured formation
programme for young people. The school, I believe, has a critical role in this.
What is interesting is that the Junior Cycle Religious Education curriculum (Dept of
Education and Science, 2000, p.29) has a section within its syllabus, that all students studying
religious education take, called ‘The Growth of Faith’, and its content description states
‘Imaging God: images of God from a wide variety of sources, including the student’s own
experience’. One would think that this content, if properly engaged with, would already be a
good foundation for students, but it doesn’t quite appear to filter through in the study research
of the selected students in the survey.
Again, in the Leaving Certificate Religious Education Syllabus (Department of Education
and Science, 2003, p. 17), under a section called ‘The search for meaning and values’, the
content looks at ‘naming God, past and present’ and it states as one of its outcomes that
‘students should be able to name and explain three traditional and three contemporary images
of God’. It does appear therefore, that the content is there for schools to engage with.
It may raise a question about the confidence of the teacher in delivering the content and what
support is needed for the teacher. It may further raise the question if the teacher should have a
‘lived experience’ of their own faith in order to be able to hand it on in the schools setting.
This is a challenge for both the Catholic Church and the education system as a vehicle for
‘handing on the faith’. Tuohy and Cairns (2000, p. 75), refer to this when speaking about
teachers in primary schools, ‘some primary schools teachers are known to have difficulty
with the expectation that they teach religion in an integrated way in their curriculum, and,
outside these two classes (First Holy Communion and Confirmation), may avoid it to some
degree’. It is probable that teachers in secondary schools may also need support to counter
act such disengagement with religion as a teaching subject.
Another point on images of God is that there is often a question raised nowadays about the
gender of God and perhaps this is related to the wider debate about the role of women in the
church and gender balance. It is interesting to note that 69% of the males and 40% of the
females responded describing God as ‘a male figure`. This is most likely influenced by the
‘man with a beard’ image and possibly as Jesus being a male or Son of God.
When asked what is faith and the majority of students say that ‘faith is a trust in God’, it
brings to mind the biblical story of Thomas the Twin (John 20:24-29) when Jesus says to the
Thomas and the disciples, ‘you believe because you can see me. Happy are those who have
not seen and yet believe’ (Jn. 20:29). Faith has always been about trust and ‘believing and not
seeing’ so it is encouraging that, along with ‘a belief in a system’, these are still foundational
for 56% of student respondents.
Another challenge for the church is to make this faith real in everyday life and to make a
strong connection between faith and spirituality, and social justice. It is again encouraging to
see that almost half of the respondents (47%, 27) say that faith is a part of their everyday life,
with the largest number (29%, 17) saying this happens through ‘prayer’ and ‘striving to be a
good person’. There is a space here to invite young people into practical ways to pray and be
involved in social outreach projects, which many schools now engage in. This is a hope for
the future as long as there is depth to these activities. Further hope is evidenced in the
response to the question of ‘the importance of faith’ when 43% (25) say it is ‘very important
The respondents understanding of spirituality is not as clear as their understanding of faith,
yet there is recognition of the relationship of spirituality to the ‘inner life’, and the reference
to ‘prayer, reflection and meditation’ as a way to sustain spirituality also expands the
opportunity to offer young people a deeper experience of prayer, meditation and a sense of
‘mindfulness’. This is a practice and language that is gaining currency in today’s culture and,
while it does not explicitly promote any particular faith, it does introduce a practice of
entering into stillness and getting in touch with ‘the inner being’ which can only enrich young
people’s lives and open up the possibility of them delving deeper into the relationship
between their spirituality and faith, and perhaps re-connect with the roots of their Christian
The responses to the questions on the church are possibly the most interesting and
enlightening, especially in light of the definition of Church as is understood today by many
forward thinking Catholics, and that promoted by Vatican 11 (Flannery, 1975, p.359) as the
Church as the ‘People of God’, where we all share in the baptismal vocation to be witnesses
to our Christian faith in every situation in life, work, school, family, and recreation. The
narrow definition of the church by 60% of the respondents as the church as ‘a building’
couldn’t be more removed from the church as People of God. For renewal of the Church, this
is a starting point, i.e. the theology of the definition of Church needs to be widely promoted
among all the faithful, but especially young people, and the associated links with each ones
baptismal call. Then it may be possible for young people to feel more included (41% say they
don’t), and the low response of Church as a Christian community as stated by 7% (4) of
respondents, may become a greater reality for all. However, young people need to actively
engage in the life of the Church to embody this Christian community ideal. They need to
actively exercise their role as ‘members’ of the Church.
What is also interesting is the number of respondents that said the Church is a place that they
would go for guidance and advice or to be a place where they feel listened to (26%, 15). The
Church can capitalise on this positive sentiment and make itself more available for young
This further relates to the final question asked about ‘what Church would you like to see in
the future?’. Young people want to see an ‘open and welcoming Church’, one that is ‘less
corrupt’, one that is ‘safe, trustworthy and honest’.
All of these responses offer a strong insight to where these selected young people are in the
understanding of their faith at their particular stage of life, and as said earlier, much of this
resonates with the equivalent stages of faith development as outlined by James Fowler.
There are clear signals to indicate that these particular students are at stage 2, i.e. ‘faith and
images of God are created by absorbing stories, beliefs and practices of the group and young
people understand them literally’, and stage 3, ‘when beliefs and values are deeply felt but
unexamined, and faith is conforming and obedient to authority’.
Stage 4 is described as ‘when self examination and critical reflection on beliefs and values
lead to a more personalised and self-responsible faith system’. However, I believe it is too
much to assume that their faith will mature according to this stage and subsequent stages
‘when previously repressed aspects of faith can come to the surface again through re-
integration leading to a more fulfilled and energising faith’ (stage 5). This is due mainly to
the fact that the Catholic Church in Ireland is currently not in a position to support this
formation as it did in the past. Therefore, these are among the many challenges for the
Catholic Church in Ireland that needs to be addressed.
Chapter 4 : The future challenges for the Catholic Church in Ireland
The Catholic Church in Ireland is in a crisis like possibly no other time in its history. It is
important to say that the reference to the Church is twofold here, the Church as the ‘People of
God’ and the ‘Hierarchy of the Church’. This is how the Catholic Church is experienced in
Ireland today, an ‘Us (People) and Them (Hierarchy)’ mentality. The next 10 to 15 years will
be a critical time in shaping how the hierarchy respond to this crisis. As in all crises, the
whole Church must first acknowledge the crisis and then, together, the hierarchy and the
faithful, seek ways to respond.
The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, is showing some signs of leadership in both
acknowledging the crisis and in making serious efforts to respond. He says that ‘the Catholic
Church is coming out of one of its most difficult moments in its history and the light at the
end of the tunnel is still a long way off’. (Martin, D., 2010). There is a hint of optimism from
the Archbishop, that there may actually be ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. This is a good
starting point, especially as he also honestly acknowledges the hurt that has caused the crisis
when he states ‘The Catholic Church in Ireland will have to live with the grief of its past,
which can and should never be overlooked. There is simply no way of wiping the slate clean,
just to ease our feelings. Yet the Church cannot be imprisoned in its past’ (Martin, D., 2010).
There is a genuine effort made to really understand the past, and I agree with the Archbishop,
that if we are to move forward at all, we can only do so with respectful and sensitive freedom
from this past, and not be ‘imprisoned by it’. Harrington (1997. p.30) echoes this stating ‘that
times of crisis can lead us to rediscover what we really are’.
Therefore, the Catholic Church must look at practical ways to move forward and the research
findings show a number of ways where this can start. The young people surveyed say they
want to see a Church which is ‘welcoming, safe, open, honest and less corrupt’. Achieving
this will not just benefit young people, but the whole Church.
There are many ways that this can be achieved and reference must be made to the many
efforts that have already begun to take place even before the church related sex abuse
scandals were made public, for example ‘parish development and renewal’ as outlined by
Harrington (1997, p.18) when he speaks of ‘a new mindset’ that ‘demands of each of us that
we think of parish in terms of mission’. One of the clear ways to interpret this ‘new mindset’
is to begin to make parishes and churches a place of ‘welcome’, the welcoming Church
referred to by students in the survey.
O’Donnell (2002) suggests in a very practical way, how gathering people at mass can bring
life to this ‘welcome and hospitality’. He explains that the mass can be much more than
celebrating the liturgy, and the sharing of communion can be extended beyond the
communion rite in the mass. O’Donnell (2002, p.560.) says that ‘priests have fruitfully
provided a space where people can stop for a chat or even a cup of coffee before leaving. The
shared cup of coffee might be temporarily more effective than shared Eucharist for people
struggling with unbelief’. For many people though, and especially the young, the ‘welcome’
will have to be offered in a different setting than the mass in church, as they are no longer
The ‘new mindset’ that Harrington speaks about also picks up on other themes that were
being promoted as ‘new’ in 1997, but they need to be ‘re-newed’ now in 2011. One of these
themes is that the Catholic Church needs to return to being a basic Christian community
where we all acknowledge our baptismal call of belonging and actively find ways to exercise
this. In addition, the basic Christian call to ‘love one another’ needs to be re-affirmed, and
this is also highlighted in the survey where young people simply want the Church to be a
place of love and support for them.
Other ways that are encouraging steps forward are the introduction of lay parish workers in
the Dublin Archdiocese and the introduction of permanent deacons in Dublin and other
dioceses. However, it is too early yet to say how effective these will be in making any
significant change in how people will engage with the Church in the future. Nonetheless, this
new approach to ‘collaborative ministry’ has the potential to reap benefits. Harrington (1997,
p. 81-82) expands the term ‘collaborative ministry’. He says that ‘it releases people [priests
and faithful] to attend to the issues of mission and evangelisation’ It is something that is used
more and more today, not just within an individual parish but also between parishes as priest
numbers decline rapidly and neighbouring parishes must support one another through a new
practice called ‘clustering’. It is also the same for religious congregations, where they too are
collaborating to fulfil their respective missions.
From the survey, and from my own work in young adult ministry, I believe that there is a
growing need now for the Church, and in this case I mean the wider Church of laity, clergy
and hierarchy, to reach out to young people and give them a ‘lived experience’ of their faith. I
referred to this when I posed the question about how well teachers of religious education in
schools, themselves have a deep ‘lived experience’ of their faith, and how in turn this will
affect the quality of their ‘teaching’. The ‘lived experience’ I refer to is where young people
and teachers themselves have a meaningful prayer life and how they can authentically relate
their own faith to the rest of their lives, and to the Gospel value of ‘loving your neighbour’.
No doubt this applies, not just to young people, but to all. Related to this is the practice of
meditation and reflection. There are hints of these coming out in the survey when the
respondents spoke about spirituality being related to ‘an inner’ life and how it can be
practiced through meditation. Our Christian faith ought to give us this ‘inner depth’ and
inform our values and the way we live our whole life. Any efforts to help achieve this are
welcome. There are many youth ministries that are responding to this such as Magis Ireland
Jesuit Young Adult Ministry, Knock Youth Ministry, the Carmelite and Redemptorist Youth
Ministries, The Sanctuary and others.
There is a significant opportunity in June 2012, when Dublin will host an International
Eucharistic Congress, to ‘use’ this to actively engage people with their faith, especially young
people. Magis Ireland are helping plan the youth programme of the Congress where they
invite young people to be part of a programme that involves prayer, visits to city
organisations involved in social justice work, and reflection on the visits to make the link
with faith, prayer and social justice. This is an example of how an effort, although small, can
help develop a ‘lived faith experience’ for people and become a model for further expansion.
The Eucharistic Congress will also harness the energy of many young people that will have
attended World Youth Day in Spain in August 2011, another ‘renewal event’ for the Church.
I began the context for this research with a quote from O’Hanlon (2011), and I will conclude
by making another reference to the ‘new vision’, and how O’Hanlon suggests it might be
achieved. It brings together the themes mentioned earlier of a ‘new mindset’ for parish and
Church, one based on real collaboration, but especially on dialogue and consultation.
O’Hanlon stated that the vision and theology of Vatican ll as the ‘People of God’ best
represents an authentic way forward, and although it never got off the ground then, perhaps
on the 50th
anniversary of the Council (2012-15), it might be the required time to breath new
life into the Catholic Church in Ireland so as to secure its future. He calls for ‘a National
Consultation’ (O’Hanlon, 2011, p 109-110) initiated by the Hierarchy between the years 2011
and 2015, which would include the planned Eucharistic Congress. This could be the
beginning of the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland, and the hope of seeing ‘the light at
the end of the tunnel’.
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Appendix 1 – The questionnaire.
Q.1 Gender : Male 1
Q.2 What is your status in the School?
Q 3. (a) Does the school / organisation have a focused faith formation program as well as
Religious Education classes? Yes 1
Other answer please specify 3
Q 3. (b) If Yes or “Other” to Q.3 (a) what are its 2 main objectives in relation to the faith
formation of the students / participants?
Q 4. Does a student / participant have to be from a Christian / Catholic faith to be part of the
school / organisation?
Q 5. Do all students / participants of all denominations receive religious education?
Q 6. What is your image of God?
Q 7. What has shaped this image of God?
Q. 8 (a) What do you think is the difference between a person’s “Faith” and a person’s
Different meaning 1
No difference 2
Don’t Know/Not Sure 3
Q 8 (b). If you consider that you have “faith” how would you describe it?
Q 9. If you consider that you have “spirituality” how would you describe it?
Q 10 (a). Does your “faith” have any relationship to your everyday life?
Unsure /Don’t Know 3
Other please specify 4
Q.10 (b) Please elaborate on your answer to Q. 10 (a).
Q 11 (a). Does your “Spirituality” have any relationship to your everyday life?
Unsure /Don’t Know 3
Other please specify 4
Q.11 (b) Please elaborate on your answer to Q. 11 (a).
Q 12 How Important is your “Faith” to you?
Very Important 1 Important 2 Neither important or unimportant 3 Unimportant 4
Very Unimportant 5.
Q 13 How Important is your “Spirituality” to you”?
Very Important 1 Important 2 Neither important or unimportant 3 Unimportant 4
Very Unimportant 5.
Q 14.(a) How does a person sustain “Faith”?
Q. 14 (b) How does a person develop their “Faith”?
Q 15. (a) How does a person sustain their “Spirituality”?
Q. 15 (b) How does a person develop their “Spirituality”?
Q 16 What is your definition of “the church”?
Q 17 (a) As a young person do you feel included in the Church?
Other please Specify
Q.17 (b) Please give a reason for your answer to Q. 17 (a).
Q.18 In what 2 ways can a young person be a part of the Church?
Q.19 In what 2 ways can the Church be a support to a young person?
Q 20. What kind of church would you like to see in the future?
Q. 21. Any other comments?
Appendix 2 – Primary objective for faith formation in school apart from RE curriculum
Appendix 3 – Images of God
Appendix 4 – What has shaped this image of God ?
Appendix 5: What is faith?
Appendix 6 : How faith does / does not relate to life.
Appendix 7: How does a person sustain their faith
Appendix 8: How does a person develop their faith?
Appendix 9: Description of spirituality
Appendix 10: How Spirituality relates to life
Appendix 11: How a person sustains spirituality