LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Ireland could see the number of Mass-going Catholics drop by nearly a quarter when the COVID-19 pandemic ends.
In March, the Republic of Ireland banned public celebrations of the liturgy to stop the spread of the coronavirus, although churches were allowed to stay open for private prayer.
The Republic of Ireland has so far seen around 31,800 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 1,788 fatalities. In addition, Northern Ireland has had 8,631 cases, with 573 fatalities.
Masses resumed on June 29, although there continue to be restrictions on the number of people allowed to attend, and the Irish bishops have lifted the obligation for Catholics to attend Sunday Mass during the crisis.
However, a new poll shows that 4 percent of those who attended Mass before the crisis don’t plan on returning, while 19 percent are unsure.
“Many Catholics have already returned to regular Mass-going, and many more wish to do so. But as we can see, it is also likely that a significant minority will not return without a very significant outreach from the Church,” said a statement from the Dublin-based Iona institute for Religion and Society, which commissioned the poll conducted by Amarach Research. The survey of 1,000 people was conducted in early September.
It found just 27 percent of the people in Ireland were attending Mass regularly, and of those, only 36 percent had returned to regular worship.
Nearly half of those surveyed who had not returned (45 percent) cited fear of COVID-19 as the reason – understandably, since regular Mass-goers in Ireland tend to be elderly, and especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. Another 22 percent cited the limit on numbers who can attend services.
More worrying for Church authorities are the 7 percent who said they had “lost the habit” and the 6 percent who said the are “happy to watch online.” (The other 20 percent gave other reasons or didn’t know.)
Noting that if the 19 percent of those “unsure” about returning to Mass end up staying home, the Iona Institute noted Ireland “will see a drop in Mass attendance when this is over of a fifth or more.”
“Obviously we must hope that most of those who currently say ‘don’t know’ do, in fact, return,” the statement said.
The poll numbers from Ireland are similar to those of a recent poll conducted in Britain, where 4 percent of Mass-goers said they were unlikely to return to in person services, and 35 percent said they would continue to worship online at least occasionally.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome