When Cahill Fagan attended secondary school in Ireland, he had a difficult time discussing his faith with his teachers and fellow students. “I went to a Catholic school, and the teachers didn’t respect me [or] what I believed at all. The teachers weren’t even Catholic,” Fagan said.
“The teachers were teaching science, and they were teaching evolution and saying, ‘Why would you go to church on a Sunday? It’s freezing cold on a Sunday.’ And I said, ‘that’s what you were thinking about on a Sunday morning: it’s freezing cold outside?’ The teachers were basically making me feel like a fail in front of the class.”
Few countries in the world are as strongly associated with the Roman Catholic Church as Ireland. Catholicism was introduced to the island sometime before the Early Middle Ages and took hold with the ministries of Palladius and Saint Patrick in the fifth century. Under English – and, later, British – rule, most Irish remained Roman Catholics despite legal and social discrimination. The Church held a powerful role in Ireland and ran most educational and health care institutions in the poverty-stricken country. Weekly attendance rates for Sunday mass reached more than 90 percent of the population.
However, that is changing. “It’s not Catholic Ireland anymore,” Pastor Tim Burns said. “It’s not anything like that; it’s just post-Christian. There’s no real spiritual basis.”
By 2002, only 48 percent of the population attended weekly mass. Many attribute that decline to people becoming more materialistic during the economic boom of the “Celtic Tiger” years. The child abuse scandal involving Catholic priests also negatively affected people’s faith in the Church. In November 2011, the Archdiocese of Dublin reported that only about 14 percent of Catholics attended mass. Many people are calling for the separation of Irish government and society from the Roman Catholic Church.
Given the rapid decline of religiosity in Ireland, young people today are perhaps the first generation to come of age in a secular Ireland. Burns is the youth pastor Swords Baptist Church in the village of Swords, just north of Dublin. Many of the Christian youth he works with struggle to fit in to this secular culture. “The list [of challenges they face] is probably endless,” he said, “from friends laughing at them because they have some sort of faith through to drink, drugs, sex – all those big topics that teens face – but also the little kind of subtle things of image and being part of the crowd and wanting to fit in. Sometimes, if you’re explicit about your faith, you definitely don’t fit in. And those are huge issues. And even the question of, ‘Where is God in all of this? Because my friends don’t believe. I believe, but is God even there? I’m not sure if He is.’ Those big questions come up fairly regularly.”
Most Irish teenagers identify themselves as Catholic or atheist, so they are unsure of how to categorize non-Catholic Christians. Katie Robinson, a teenager at the Swords youth ministry, did not go through confirmation or communion in the Catholic Church, so friends assume that she isn’t Christian. “A lot of people that I haven’t talked to think that I don’t believe in God, or think something different of me just because I’m not a Catholic,” Katie said. “But whenever I do get the opportunity to talk to my friends about this, and talk to my friends about God and the whole subject of God, I probably talk way too much about it. But I’m not really scared to. I don’t really see the point of being scared to talk about it.”
Another young member of Swords had similar experiences. Nicole Pigott has many friends who initially assumed she was an atheist instead of a Christian. “They don’t really understand,” she said. “They kind of just presume that if you’re not a Catholic, you don’t believe in God because that’s just the way things are here. I go to Catholic school, and it doesn’t mean everyone’s a Catholic, but everyone who isn’t a Catholic pretty much doesn’t believe in God. So, they kind of just presume that I don’t. But I had conversations with them and corrected them about it… Some of them don’t listen to what you’re saying… but, even so, it makes me stronger as a person, I guess, that I’ve told them.”
For Burns and others involved in the youth ministry at Swords, an important part of their work is encouraging students when they’re faced with such experiences. “A lot of what we do is life-on-life,” Burns said. “You know, just talking with young people and talking and hopefully encouraging and supporting them. So, our Friday night youth group is not explicitly a teaching time.”
Burns was a troubled youth, but a good friend brought him to youth group and some men served as mentors for him. “Having adults or having people that just hang in there and accept you, talk to you about what has happened or challenge what has happened or just encourage you as a person… those are the kind of things that have stuck with me,” Burns said. “Just their general attitude towards me or their general love for me or encouragement…that’s hopefully what I try and bring with me into where I am now.”
Robyn Montgomery, who spent the past two years ministering at Swords Baptist Church as a short-term TEAM missionary, also had a positive youth ministry experience with encouraging mentors. She tries to bring that same encouragement to Swords. Montgomery believes that simply loving them and being available to the youth has built trusting friendships. “That one-on-one relationship with teens is huge because it is entering their world and them asking questions, and really then helping them with what a Christian perspective is and what it looks like to walk with God daily, and that He is there with you, and bringing Him in to everyday,” she said. “That it’s not just a Sunday thing or just when you’re with Christian friends, but that you have a story, and it’s you and God going through this together, and what it looks like to be a Christian in their context, wherever they are.”
This is a philosophy that Burns and Montgomery hope to pass on to the next generation of Christians in Ireland. Some teenagers affected by the ministry are beginning to respond. Fagan graduated last year and is now helping with the Swords youth ministry. “I suppose the reason is that I just want to help out and give something back, if I can, to God,” he said. The ministry is also encouraging to him in a culture that is unfriendly to believers. “I think it is good for me to see other people benefit from it,” he said. “It gives you a boost yourself to see God working in other people, especially people who don’t know Him well or who aren’t Christian… What’s great about the church is you can just go in and just talk about God or whatever.”
Even within the youth ministry, it can be a challenge to convince teenagers that secular Irish society does not hold any hope for them. Students frequently drop out of the program around 15 or 16 years of age. Many get caught up in the widespread culture of drinking and the subsequent problems of drug use or sexual activity that often accompany it. Fagan attributes some of this behavior to Ireland’s religious heritage. “I think a lot of people are confused because of the Catholic Church,” he said. “I think people are born into the Catholic Church, and they get bored with it as they get to my age. And then someone says to them something about God, and then they think, ‘Oh, I’ve done that already. I didn’t get anything from it.’ And then they don’t think anything else about it. But little do they know the full story of Jesus, what He’s done for us.”
In the six years that Burns has worked at Swords, he has seen many young people come and go. “I think a lot of what I’ve learned from working here is that you just hope,” Burns said. “You just hope that something that you’ve said, something that you’ve done, how you’ve lived life with them, how you’ve spoken with them about God, how you’ve spoken with them about life, catches and sticks. And whether that’s two years down the line, five years down the line, ten, fifteen, twenty… that ultimately, hopefully, at some point they recognize that there is a real need, that there’s an emptiness. There’s something missing. That something is God.”
Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me. – Revelations 3:20
-Written by Megan Darreth
-Photographed by Robert Johnson
[Originally published in TEAMHorizons, March 2013]