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Majority of lapsed Catholics maintain a love-hate relationship with the Church

OPINION: The longer you live, the more you realise that faith is a complicated business but it can survive the most amazing battering. Living the Christian life is a haphazard up-and-down journey but the Catholic Church and those who have lapsed are poorer in the present situation, writes Fr Kevin McNamara (pictured) who is Parish Priest in Moyvane and formerly of the Killarney Parish

LAPSED Catholics probably form the biggest religious group in very many parishes across Ireland. That isn’t as silly and contradictory a statement as it might first appear.

Few lapsed Catholics become out-and-out atheists but some do. The ‘Catholic thing’ in them snaps and there is a hole where once there was faith.

Others join a cult that may or may not be hostile to the Catholic Church. But the majority of lapsed Catholics maintain a classical love-hate relationship with the Church.

They may not go to Mass but they’ll have Masses said for others. They may be fiercely critical of priests in general but they’ll have their own few priests that they have met who are ‘sound men’. The lapsed will profess that they couldn’t care less about the whole business yet they’ll talk more religion than the Pope.

If I may make a wild generalisation, I’d say that most lapsed Catholics have left because at a crucial moment in their lives they felt that the Church didn’t care for them personally.

The longer you live the more you realise that faith is a complicated business

It might be a moment in confession years ago when they brought a sexual sin for absolution and the priest ‘ate the face’ off them. At least, that’s the way they remember it and ever since those few harsh words add up to a Church that doesn’t care.

If a priest is distant and uninvolved at the funeral of a parent, immediately allegiance to the Church slips a good number of notches.

I can still remember the shock and confusion in my young head when the priest celebrating a funeral of someone I really loved whispered to the priest beside him: “What’s his name again?”

I was shocked and saddened. No harm was meant, I’m sure, but it felt like a slap of a wet rag across my face at the time. I smelt professionalism and glimpsed a Church that didn’t care.

Marriage must be the single biggest cause for people lapsing. It is the time when people are most sensitive, most vulnerable to the kind or cold touch of the Church. It could be a messy marriage and the priest doesn’t want to get involved; the painful annulment going on for years and ending in bitterness; the irregular marriage that puts a couple in limbo and the Church in a no-win situation.

Add to that what looks like cold, unsympathetic, celibate teaching on birth control and you have a recipe for confusion, lukewarm practice and eventual lapsing.

Faith is a gift that we can lose but it is a rugged plant with deep roots

It can so easily add up to a Church that doesn’t seem to care and yet one of the glories of the thing called faith is that it survives the most amazing battering.

I know that the books tell us that it is a gift that we can lose but, in my experience, it is a rugged plant with deep roots. It can be flourishing away under the most unlikely surface.

The longer you live, the more you realise that faith is a complicated business. You see that living the Christian life is a haphazard up-and-down journey. The signposts get faded with the passage of years.

You reach a point where you are no longer impressed by those who practice and unimpressed by those who don’t. For the simple reason that no one can ever know what is under the surface.

Both Church life and the lapsed themselves are poorer in the present situation

I really believe that our Church does care. I believe that there is a genuine regret for the times when the individual priest, bishop or Church law has messed up a person and made them feel unloved by God.

We are a human Church with our share of warts, I agree, but we are also a Church where sorrow for wrongdoing has always been a respected virtue.

Meanwhile, the lapsed carry on an alternative Church. They pray in their own way, visit the parents’ grave, prepare the children for First Holy Communion as best they can and hope that, behind it all, there is a loving God who understands. By and large, they are not hostile, simply confused and more than a little hurt.

I’ve deliberately used the word ‘lapsed’. Others might be happier with ‘alienated’ or ‘inactive’. I’m won’t though because these are imports that don’t carry the rich meaning that the word ‘lapsed’ has in the Irish context.

Need I say that both Church life and the lapsed themselves are poorer in the present situation? No family is happy when some of its children are out there somewhere in the night, refusing to come home. Neither, I suspect, are the children.