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Fr Patrisk Hennessy, Vice Provincial of the "St Patrick" Province offers a take on the social, youth and church scene in Ireland. A picture resulting from surveys and the perspectives opening up for the Church and for the Salesian mission.
Over the last 25 years, Ireland has moved from the economic depression of the 1980s to the excesses of the Celtic Tiger years, to the dramatic recession of the last four years. It has become increasingly globalised, secularised, individualistic and materialistic in outlook. There is disenchantment with institutional structures, particularly with the structures of the Roman Catholic Church. Much of this is due to a series of scandals involving the abuse of children and of authority.
Ireland’s Migrant Community
Census 2011 shows that Poles are now the largest migrant group in the country (122,000). With around 112,000, the second largest group are people from the UK, unchanged in number since 2006. Among non-EU countries, Indian and Chinese are the most populous.
The overall percentage of people living in Ireland with a nationality other than Irish is now 12%, grown from around 420,000 in 2006 to just over 540,000 in 2011. With the exception of people from the UK, the age profile of migrant groups in Ireland is young.
Irish Youth Population
Ireland has the youngest population in Western Europe with 40% of the population under 25 and 21% of these less than 14 years of age. Studies in the last decade have shown that young people in general feel happy most of the time (70%), are close to their parents and value their opinion on major issues. Irish youth are generally well educated having benefited from free education up to and including third level. They are open-minded and like to meet and engage with the life stories of friend and stranger. However they do not escape stereotyping by the media and can be presented as people who have problems or as people who are problems.
Family life has been changing in Ireland in recent years. 1990-2007 saw an increase in the number of women in the workplace and an increase in the prevalence of out-of-home and non-parental care for children of all ages. However, levels of unemployment have risen dramatically and a significant number of families have experienced a drop in their standard of living and more parents are now struggling to provide the best start for their children.
Notwithstanding the recent economic downturn, the social changes of the previous decades are likely to persist. The number of births outside of marriage continues to increase, the recent figure being 34% of all births. The average age of mothers at maternity outside of marriage is just over 28 years of age. The number of couples seeking a Roman Catholic marriage is down from 90% to 72% in just over a decade. Civil ceremonies account for a quarter of all marriages in Ireland today.
Ireland has the lowest divorce rate and the highest fertility rate in the EU, and its population is increasing at a higher rate than in any other EU country.
Levels of consistent child poverty are again on the increase and have the potential to return to the 11% figure that existed in 2005. Cuts in the budgets of Social Services are resulting in a reduction of key services, the loss of qualified and experienced staff and the increased isolation of disadvantaged youth.
Average class sizes at primary level (4-12 years) are the second highest in the EU, though the early school-leaver rate is better than the EU average. Irish 15-year-old students had joint 17th highest mathematical literacy among participating EU countries in 2009 while on reading literacy Ireland was eighth highest. The Irish government has launched a recent strategy, Literacy and Numeracy for Learning and Life, to address these levels in the schools. The proportion of the population aged 25-34 in Ireland that has completed third-level education is the third highest in the EU.
The current rate of unemployment in Ireland is alarming having reached 14.3%. The long-term employment rate has increased in the last year from 6.5% to 8.4% and accounts for over half of those unemployed. One in three young men under 25 are unemployed and emigration of individuals and whole families is on the increase (up 81% from 2006). Such figures are likely to continue as the Economic and Social Research Institute predicts that the economy in Ireland is likely to remain depressed as worldwide and European economies face difficulties.
Ireland is amongst the highest consumers of alcohol in the world. However the recent European School Survey Project on Alcohol and other Drugs (2011) has shown that binge drinking among teens in Ireland has decreased and Ireland is now around the average mark for the countries surveyed with 50% of 15-16 year olds admitting to having drunk alcohol in the past month. This is down from a figure of 73% in 2003. However when Irish teenagers do drink they tend to consume more in one session than the majority of other nations surveyed.
Just over 27% of households in the North and South of Ireland reported using some illegal drugs in their lifetime (2010-2011). Cannabis was the most commonly used illegal drug across all age groups. After cannabis, use was highest for ecstasy, cocaine and magic mushrooms (each 7%), followed by amphetamines (5%), LSD and poppers (each 4%). Less than 1% reported having ever used crack (0.6%), heroin (0.8%) or methadone (0.5%). While use of solvents also remains high among the young, tobacco is the most popular form of substance taken.
Alcohol has been shown to be a critical factor in about half of all recorded juvenile crime according to reports by the Irish Youth Justice Service. Its 2009 report noted that drugs usage often went hand in hand with alcohol and was involved in youth crimes from assaults, staged fights to robbery.
Its report of 2010 noted that alcohol offences are the main offence for which children are referred to the Garda Youth Diversion Programme, accounting for almost a fifth of youth crimes. This report also stated that there has been no improvement in the number of young persons being admitted to detention schools, with 125 young persons admitted that year. This is an increase on the 2009 figure, which stood at 114. The number of children on remand also increased in 2010 to 109.
Men in Ireland are four times more likely to die from suicide than women and overall death rates for males are higher in all groups but most pronounced in the 15-24 age grouping. There is some evidence that suicide rates are on the increase as the economic recession continues. According to the Central Statistics Office’s latest Women and Men in Ireland study, a total of 386 men took their own lives in 2010 compared to 100 women.
Youth and Faith
In the Irish Church, youth ministry has become a marginalised activity. The reasons for this are multifaceted and have their origins both within the Church and wider society. Overall church practice in Ireland has halved since Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1979. Figures for weekly Mass attendance vary across the country from as low as 10% in Dublin to an average of 46% nationwide. About one third of 18-24 year olds were still attending weekly Mass in 2009. However, these figures are likely to have dropped with the publication of the Ryan and Murphy Reports on Child Sexual abuse.
In the eyes of many people the institutional Church has let the Gospel down. It has not been lived with honesty and integrity by those that were proclaiming themselves to be its leaders and advocates. For many, Church-run structures are now suspect, irrelevant or to be avoided. However, much of the Catholic and Christian tradition, values and language do still reside in this country. Younger generations will make up their own mind on the teachings of Christ, the Gospel and the Church in their lives. It is no longer the case that it can be assumed that they will be introduced to the Church in a positive light by their parents. The role of the one-to-one positive contact with a person of faith is of growing importance and the arena of such contact is less likely to be at an official Church-run function.
This youth generation will not tolerate any repeat of the scandals, clericalisation, poor theology and liturgies that may have survived within the older Church. Many of the current generation of young adults can be found in the category of the unchurched, i.e. those secularised, inactive Catholics who only attend church on rare occasions. Even this term may be a categorisation too far in that some of these young people will never in fact have any contact with the institutional church but have come to religion through the path of their own life journey or a particular spirituality. Others may have grown up in a household where there is still Church practice or the Christian stories and language lives on and may have attended church as children but not now. Some will be unchurched and friendly while others will be hostile. However, few will go untouched when and if they have an opportunity to experience the Gospel message lived with humility, honesty and integrity. The opportunity for re-evangelisation still exists. There is also a case to be made for an educated form of catechesis.
Signs of a vibrant and committed Church are to be found in the rise of Catholic youth groups such as Youth 2000 and the Pure in Heart, an ongoing openness among young adults to a personal relationship with Jesus and a desire to spend time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, the desire for spiritual direction and a spirituality that speaks directly to the young’s own search for meaning and purpose. Among the generation of young people in their late teens and into the twenties there is a significant minority who are prepared to take their relationship with Jesus and their faith seriously and allow it to affect their lifestyles. They are open to forms of prayer, church-based gatherings and liturgy (often with a strong devotional content). Others, while not as open to faith and church, do have a strong sense of service and Volunteering Ireland reports an increase in the number of those registering to volunteer across all age groups.
Archbishop Martin of Dublin (2010) has called for an agenda of change in the Irish Church, one that allows it to have a place/standing again in Irish society by being authentic and faithful to the person and the message of Jesus Christ. This is a call to be heard by us Salesians as well – we have a founder, founding mission and a pedagogy/spirituality that needs little adaptation or re-expression to be acceptable to the modern psyche and mentality. The Preventive System has shown itself in this country to be supportive of and capable of providing insight to the current therapeutic approach being used in Care institutions, to the provision of pastoral care and the broader curriculum in schools third level institutions, to the philosophy of informal education being developed as part of the regeneration policy of urban centres and to programmes that support young adults in their own vocational development.
Fr Patrick Hennessy SDB.