Four clerics reveal to us why they are keeping the faith
Easter is the most important week in the Christian calendar, but its religious message is increasingly lost in a secular world. Ivan Little talks to four clerics about how to change that
Throw the word Easter into a conversation in Northern Ireland and the first things that many people will invariably talk about are eggs, Donegal and licensing hours.
Jesus, the Cross and the Crucifixion usually come way down the pecking order.
For in an increasingly secular society where some folk see Protestant and Catholic as political rather than religious labels, Easter no longer has the relevance it once had in the province.
And, in the bigger picture, too, Christian churches are having to fight harder and harder to maintain their numbers - and their relevance for sections of the community particularly in inner-city areas.
Rarely a year goes by without one survey or another warning that church attendances are on the wane, particularly among young people.
Last week in one Belfast church I attended - and leaving aside children with their parents - in a totally unscientific headcount I reckoned that barely one in 10 of the congregation were under the age of 21.
And a number of clerics I talked to across the four main denominations during Holy Week all agreed that the challenges facing them and their colleagues were immense, with urgent action needed to stop the drift away from their churches.
Fr Stephen Crossan is a 36-year-old priest from Tullylish near Gilford and is now curate in the nearby Seapatrick Parish.
He said the church had to accept the reality of the modern era. "It's getting smaller and society is changing. So we have to adapt as well to try to move on with the times and be more open and more inclusive with people," he says.
"We are in a period of transition and flux and we need patience and courage to go ahead into the future and not be afraid."
Fr Crossan, who has been a chaplain in hospitals and prisons, says he is concerned that many young people were no longer committed to the church. "But for me the most important thing is that the doors are open and that young people know they are welcome and that we are here if they need us," he adds.
Easter is a busy and a particularly important time for Fr Crossan.
"It's the culmination of the whole liturgical year," he says. "We have a number of very special Masses and vigils remembering the Lord's sacrifices leading up to tomorrow's services to celebrate the resurrection.
"One of the highlights for me is the Mass of the Chrism on Holy Thursday in Newry Cathedral where the bishop blesses the holy oils for use in services for the year ahead and where all the priests in the diocese renew their vows."
It was a Chrism Mass that influenced Fr Crossan to become a priest in the first place. As a young altar boy he was at a Chrism Mass and decided that his future lay in the priesthood.
"My own personal spirituality would be very much centred around the priesthood and the Eucharist so that's probably where my vocation came from," says Fr Crossan, who has been a priest for seven years though he trained as a teacher in London and worked for the Housing Executive for a time.
"I took the scenic route into the priesthood," he says. "After school I went to Maynooth and Rome to study but then I left because I was probably too young. There were 34 of us at the start in Maynooth in 1997 and only four of us were ever ordained. It was a very difficult time back then.
"I was away for four years but I went back in 2004 and was ordained in 2008. My faith had never been shaken."
Ballynafeigh Methodist Church minister the Rev Ruth Patterson agreed that Churches were in a state of change but she said that the picture was different in different parts of Northern Ireland.
"It's really like a patchwork quilt," she says. "Some parts of the Church are stronger while others are in decline, but it's not a total decline. There are signs of new growth and for example there are churches in parts of the Republic which are growing.
"However, some things definitely need to change," says Mrs Patterson, a former radiographer, who added that the number of young people in her own church was small but that was balanced by larger numbers in other congregations in the likes of Lisburn, Newtownards and east Belfast.
"However it's safe to say that there are lots of good things happening with young people," she says.
Mrs Patterson says she is optimistic about the future of the Church in Northern Ireland, but she adds: "I think it will be different to our 1950s and 1960s models of Church because we live in a much more secular society with different challenges.
"For instance, people aren't necessarily going to come to church twice on a Sunday, much as we would love them to," says Mrs Patterson, who adds that another shift which affected the Churches and what they offered their people through the week was caused by employment practices.
She says many people who finished work late wanted to spend time with their families rather than going out to Church activities at nights.
"So how the Church operates today has to reflect people's lives today. But while the Church changes, the messages it's bringing isn't changing including the message of Easter," she says.
Mrs Patterson says she enjoys Easter as a time of reflection and a time of hope even though it's her busiest period of the year with extra services and visits to members of her congregation who can't attend Church.
One of the highlights of Easter in her area is the annual Good Friday cross-community procession organised by Church leaders in the Ormeau Road district to Cooke Centenary Presbyterian church for a prayer service.
"The walk of witness is very meaningful for everyone who comes along, especially for us as clergy who share together and take that time out on Good Friday," she says.
Mrs Patterson, the daughter of a Methodist minister, said the importance of the Easter message couldn't be underestimated as people considered the last week of the life of Jesus.
She says: "Sometimes when we suffer in our own lives we forget about the cruelty of what Jesus suffered too, and it's good to think about that and find hope in that."
Church of Ireland minister the Rev Adrian Dorrian, who is a clergyman in CS Lewis's old church at St Mark's Dundela, said he believed Christians had to be more pro-active than ever before in getting their message across.
"I would agree that there are definitely more challenges than there were 30 or 40 years ago but I think that leads to more innovation and more excitement because every challenge is an opportunity," he says.
The 33-year-old cleric, who was ordained nearly 10 years ago, says he was more excited than ever about the prospects for Christianity here and in particular in his parish.
"We have a great relationship with schools in our area and we have just started a new initiative to get more young families into the Church and there has been a great response," adds the cleric, who's a cousin of missing Bangor woman Lisa Dorrian, who disappeared after attending a party in Ballyhalbert in 2005.
Mr Dorrian says the Churches needed to get more young people through their doors by examining ways of engaging with more of them, but he adds: "Young people do buy into the message of Christ if it is presented correctly, because it is every bit as relevant nowadays as it ever was.
"We have a small but incredibly committed group of young people in our Church. And some of our uniformed youth organisations are running at full capacity."
Mr Dorrian once thought about a career in the theatre or as a drama teacher.
He studied drama and theology at Queen's University, Belfast, before committing himself fully to the Church.
"It's something that ticks my boxes when the Church does something dramatic and there's nothing more dramatic than some of the stories of Holy Week."
He says he believes passionately that Easter is a time of new beginnings and fresh starts. "For Christians, it's the absolute central week of the Church's yesterday. It's all about saying everyone gets a second chance and I think that is a fantastic message," he says.
Mr Dorrian says he would love to see more people going to church at Easter but he wasn't unduly worried that it was, like Christmas, a time for giving presents to other people.
He adds: "There is something very selfless about the giving of gifts. It's about seeing the joy of another person. I don't think that being kind to other people is ever a bad thing."
Presbyterian minister the Rev Graeme Kennedy, a law student turned cleric, accepts that statistics show the four main Churches in Ireland are declining in membership figures.
But he's not pessimistic about the future. He says: "I have always felt that there's an opportunity for the message of the church to be heard today which is different from in the past.
"We have people now who are third or fourth generation un-Churched and who have no relationship with the Church. And while we can bemoan the lack of Biblical understanding there is an opportunity there because those people don't have the same baggage attached to them as folk who in the past left the Church for whatever reason.
"So we have the chance to reach those people, though that requires the Church to maybe change the way it does things."
Mr Kennedy, who got his calling to become a minister when he was studying law in Scotland, says it is hard to generalise about young people and their attitudes to the Church.
But he adds: "I think that if they are presented with a Church where they are loved and cared for and where authentic relationships happen based on the truth of the message of the Gospel, they will see the value of that and will feel part of it."
Mr Kennedy (42), who was born on Christmas Day, sometimes surprises young people in his congregation as he explains that Easter has always been his 'special' time of year.
The minister of Ballygrainey church, between Bangor and Donaghadee, says: "It's because of the significance of what the Church teaches us happened at Easter that it resonates down through the generations."
As a teenager Mr Kennedy, who was a member of a Presbyterian church in east Belfast, was part of an organisation called the Crusaders who are now known as Urban Saints and it was weekends away with them, especially at Easter, which had a massive impact on his development as a Christian.
"It was always obvious to us growing up that our parents' faith was very much based on the reality of Easter and what happened then. It was always made clear that it was about more than chocolate eggs," he said.
Mr Kennedy is disappointed that Easter is being increasingly ignored in the modern world, especially by broadcasters who have minimised the religious input into their Easter programming.
"I believe the Cross and the resurrection of Christ are the most significant events not only in the church's history but also in human history," he says.
Stars who have a strong Christian faith
- Robert Duvall — the star of films such as Apocalypse Now and The Godfather was raised a Christian Scientist and took evangelical religion as his subject matter for his compelling 1997 film The Apostle
- Mel Gibson — the Lethal Weapon star has made no secret of his Christian faith over the years, but found himself on the receiving end of much criticism for his brutal and bloody version of the crucifixion story in his movie The Passion of the Christ
- David Suchet — the actor is best known to many as the moustached hero of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, but recently went on to fulfil a “27-year ambition” to make an audio recording of the entire Bible. The star became a Christian while reading a hotel Bible in the Eighties
- Angela Bassett — the US actress has portrayed the likes of Tina Turner on film, and has spoken of her faith in the past, saying: “Loving God is like my being black. I just am.”