Lent begins today, but does anyone care?

Lent begins today, but does anyone care?

IT'S Lent and it used to be that a lot of Irish people did penance at this time of year.

When I was a child 30 years ago, no child in the parish ate chocolate or anything sweet between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday (with a welcome dispensation on St Patrick’s Day). The men of the parish were the exact same but their sacrifice was alcohol, not sweets.

I don’t know if things are the same today. A lot has changed. According to the 2011 census, 84 per cent of Irish people consider themselves Catholic but only 18 per cent attend Mass regularly. This is a huge drop from the 90 per cent who attended Mass every week in 1984.

There are various reasons for this — not least what we now know about how children and vulnerable people were abused by trusted members of the Church in the twentieth century — but that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I’m asking just where we stand in relation to religion in Ireland today.

Judging from the figures, you might think that few of us care. But that’s not the case when it comes to answering difficult questions in referenda — questions about abortion and the question that will soon be asked about same-sex marriage, for example. And it’s certainly wasn’t the case when Stephen Fry was recently interviewed on RTÉ.

Gay Byrne hosts a show called The Meaning of Life on which he interviews people about their understanding of life, death and life after death. When he interviewed Stephen, Stephen spoke about his lack of belief in any god at all.

When pushed further, Stephen said that if there were a god, he had to be a cruel one. A god who let children die painful deaths, a god who allowed thousands of injustices every day — this was not a kind, loving or merciful god, according to Stephen.

For days after this interview, the airwaves were full of people who were furious with Stephen Fry. How could he have said such things, they asked. How could he have insulted our religion so?

It’s clear from this that we are very conflicted and confused about religion in Ireland today. Perhaps spending some time thinking about this would be a good use of this year’s Lenten period?