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Left Out in the Cold

Image: StSavioursPriory

Image: StSavioursPriory

Two people I was talking with recently both mentioned in passing that snow is expected later in the year. This is not good news. We have been warned incessantly that we are facing a very difficult winter ahead, mainly as a consequence of the huge rise in energy costs caused by Putin’s war in Ukraine. Snow, lovely as it is to look at, will only make a bad situation even more difficult.

The financial support given in the Government’s Budget 2023 for households, businesses, sports organisations and voluntary organisations do not extend to the churches. Catholic Bishops have welcomed Government plans to support local communities but called for support to be given to facilities that are not grant-aided, saying such public utilities include parish centres, community halls, and church buildings themselves. A government scheme will allow Church-owned properties to avail of additional funds as long as it is being used for a “community service”.

It is tempting to conclude that the Mass and other religious celebrations are not seen as providing any ‘service’. Announcing the supports Minister of State, Jack Chambers, said “We look to these sectors to continue to continue to reinforce our resilience and mental fortitude”. As David Quinn writing in The Irish Catholic, on October 13, 2022, observed, “Given that the Churches have been totally neglected so far, it appears that the Government does not believe religion helps to “reinforce our resilience and mental fortitude”.

A Positive Contributor

This, if it is true is unfortunate in so many ways. It has been proven that religion is a positive contributor to mental health and well-being. Religion gives people something to believe in, provides a sense of structure, and typically offers a group of people to connect with over similar beliefs. These facets of life can have a large positive impact on mental health – research suggests that religiosity reduces suicide rates, alcoholism, and drug use.

The main mental health benefits are to be found in the area of community, ritual, and teachings. Religious activity initiates social connections with other members of the church and creates a sense of belonging which is something all humans crave. When we come together with others in the context of Sunday observation, we know we are in a safe environment with people we can trust. Many churches (at least before Covid) offered the opportunity for people to socialise over a cup of tea or coffee after Mass. The UK has long been ahead of Ireland in the realisation of the importance of this. It can be a lifeline to elderly people often living alone, with little contact other than that which the Church provides.

The ritual of religion helps us to cope with difficult life situations as in the funeral of a loved one.  In this country we have a tradition of people offering their condolences with the words, “I’m sorry for your trouble”. The importance of this support came vividly to the fore at the height of the Pandemic when it was denied to us all because of the restrictions on movement. We were deprived during those dark days of structure, regularity, and predictability, all of which in their own way provide comfort and consolation when the burden of living can become too great.

Lessons to be Learned

There are many lessons in life that we all have to learn, and religion helps us in many instances to do just that.  I am thinking here about the reality of death and the search for the meaning of life itself a question that we all grapple with at some point or another. It can help people cope with family traumas, bad health diagnoses, and other life-changing events. It also provides guidance to live by, such as the importance of empathy and trying to do the right thing as well as teaching the importance of compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude.

The bishops and many priests are becoming increasingly frustrated by the way in which the Government regards the churches as irrelevancies.  Fr John Carroll, PP of Barntown in Co Wexford is quoted as saying “…it’s starting to wear that the Church is left on this ‘last to be considered list’ “.  By contrast, in the UK the Churches will receive help from the State paying their energy bills this winter.

Bishop Michael Router told the Irish Independent that it is possible that churches and parish halls may have to close as they grapple with soaring heating costs.  It hardly seems fair that sporting organisations should receive help but not parishes that offer support not only, it must be pointed out, to church-goers but to all the people who use parish services.

The Catholic bishops have appealed to the Government to extend the energy cost supports to churches and parish halls. During winter church buildings are often frequented by the homeless and vulnerable to keep warm and stay in a safe place  We are all facing difficulties but for many, those difficulties are worse than we could ever imagine.  When looking at how it regards the churches it is to be hoped that the Government might bring itself to look at the bigger picture.

Written by Marie – Therese Cryan

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