In trouble before Covid

Hugh Dougherty warns that Catholicism in Scotland was in a bad way before Covid, and now faces steep decline.

Visit the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland website, and you’ll learn that just 127,003 Scottish Catholics, out of an estimated population of 705,500, attended Sunday Mass regularly in 2019. That works out at just 18 per cent, which was a danger signal being ignored, even before the plague struck.

And it was very clear, too, that the majority of attenders were on the mature side, with vast swathes of young and middle-aged people missing in action.

Post-Covid, we’re hearing reports, and, seeing with our own eyes, of drops in Sun- day Mass attendance of around one third in the best scenarios, and much higher than that in the worst cases.

All too often it seems like we’re managing decline, rather than ascertaining its causes, and tackling it head on to both bring the lapsed back, and crucially to attract new members of our ailing Church.

None of this is new, however, and I can see it in our own Glasgow parish, Christ the King in King’s Park.

When we arrived after we were married in 1975, there were Sunday Masses galore and at least three priests in the parish. Children and staff from the local primary would drop in before classes to the 8.30 am Mass, the Sunday pews were stuffed with families, and there were plenty of young people, both school age and post-school.

Today, there is no early morning Mass, and the kids go to the breakfast club instead.

We have one priest, and, even before Covid, Sunday Mass numbers were dropping rapidly, with a notable lack of school age children attending, and people of my age, largely, carrying the day.

Once we of the aged baby boomer generation are gone, will the parish follow? Given just how many once-faithful attenders haven’t come back after the pandemic I fear it will.

At the other end of the country, we have a static caravan in Portpatrick, and, on Sun- days, when we’re down there, we drive into Stranraer for 10.00 am Mass, the only one on a Sunday, at St Joseph’s.

The church, then, labours against many local disadvantages, but, as with all the parishes in the south west of the Diocese of Galloway, clergy numbers are thin on the ground, and you can see parishes simply fading away as it becomes impossible to staff them as parish membership further declines though ageing congregations.

This general and steepening decline may be easier to identify in remoter and rural parts of Scotland, but we’re fooling ourselves if we don’t recognise exactly the same trends in our larger towns and cities.

The Church in Scotland, despite local drives such as the Sycamore Course at St Joseph’s, and other similar programmes is at crisis point.

Let me make it very clear that I have enormous respect for both Fr Peter Gallacher at Christ the King and Fr Neil O’Donnell at St Joseph’s, their deacons, and all the parish volunteers they work with.

But what all of our clergy, the majority of whom are ageing, need, Scotland-wide, is massive, centrally-provided support and direction to remove some of the burden and responsibility from their shoulders of attracting people back to Mass.

In plain terms, it’s high time that the Bishops’ Conference started shouting the good news, literally promoting the spiritual, social and mental health benefits of being a practising Catholic, to a country lost spiritually, economically and politically. The message is still strong if we find the right way to say it.

Of course the mainstream media is happy to ignore us, but many of our own people are quite happy to ignore us as well!

We need to get smarter at how we communicate, whether through mainstream media, social media or just face-to-face.

But we need to face up to the urgency of the situation and act now. Watching the Church in Scotland, our Church, whether in Glasgow or Stranraer, wither away, is simply not acceptable.

Hugh Dougherty is a mostly retired journalist and communication officer.

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