Address of Archbishop Eamon Martin – “Handing on the Faith in the Home 35 years on”

Handing on the faith in the Home thirty-five years on – address by Archbishop Eamon Martin

I suggest two particular pastoral supports for marriage and the family: (i) a parish or pastoral area based approach to preparing for the sacrament of marriage including prayer, catechesis and practical advice for couples and opportunities for marriage support in the early years; and (ii) Prayer Guidance for couples and young parents on ‘praying with your children’ and ‘introducing your children to the faith’, even before they go to school.

  • I would like to see our Catholic teacher education institutions developing initial and in-service faith formation for teachers so that their knowledge and understanding of their personal faith is deepened.
  • I would like to see the day when every parish or pastoral area has a trained lay catechist who could work alongside the parish priest, parish pastoral council and school religious education coordinators in ensuring that the triad of home school and parish are re-imagined for the twenty-first century.
  • The challenge facing the forthcoming Synod will be to find ways of remaining completely faithful to the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family while at the same time reaching out in a compassionate and merciful way to those whose home and family situations are very different.

While tidying up the library at the Archbishop’s residence in Armagh, I came across a copy of the pastoral letter, Handing on the Faith in the Home, which was written by the Irish bishops back in 1980.  Thirty five years later, I would like to use it as a springboard for this reflection about handing on the faith in Ireland today, exploring with you some of the challenges and opportunities that this presents for us in the Ireland of the twenty-first century.

Handing on the Faith in the Home was launched in the year after the visit of Pope Saint John Paul II to Ireland.  The situation of the Church in Ireland was very different to that of today.  I was just beginning my studies for the priesthood in 1980 and, truth be told, I could never in a million years have imagined that I would be here today in Knock, as Archbishop of Armagh, sharing with you my hopes for the future of the Catholic Church in this country. 

A lot has happened since then. There has been a huge downturn in the numbers of Irish people who regularly practice their faith. The number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life has declined steeply: seventy-nine seminarians began their studies with me that year in Maynooth.  The Church in Ireland and indeed throughout the world has endured a dark and scandalous period in her history with revelations of child abuse together with a shameful betrayal of trust.  A wave of secularism has washed across Western Europe and, in its wake, many Irish people have drifted away from the sacraments; more families in Ireland are living their lives with little or no reference to God.  Ireland’s economic prosperity on the world stage has come and gone again; and, as the Celtic Tiger slinked away, tens of thousands of our young people have left their homes, parishes and communities seeking better prospects in Australia and elsewhere.  Could we ever have imagined thirty-five years ago that so much change would happen so quickly, especially to the role and standing of the Church in the lives, homes, communities, and thinking of the Irish people?

When you read the homilies and addresses of Pope Saint John Paul II in Ireland, they seem almost prophetic.  Let me quote to you from his message at Limerick, which he spoke just before he left Ireland. In that homily, at Green Park Racecourse on 1 October 1979, Pope Saint John Paul’s theme was the role of the laity and their distinctive calling and mission in the world and in the life of the Church.

He said: “Ireland is at a point of decision in her history. The Irish people have to choose today their way forward. Will it be the transformation of all strata of humanity into a new creation, or the way that many nations have gone, giving excessive importance to economic growth and material possessions while neglecting the things of the spirit?”

“Ireland must choose. You the present generation of Irish people must decide; your choice must be clear and your decision firm…. What would it profit Ireland to go the easy way of the world and suffer the loss of her own soul?”

The Holy Father continued: “Your country seems in a sense to be living again the temptations of Christ: Ireland is being asked to prefer the “kingdoms of the world and their splendour” to the Kingdom of God (cf. Mt 4 :8). Satan, the Tempter, the Adversary of Christ, will use all his might and all his deceptions to win Ireland for the way of the world. What a victory he would gain, what a blow he would inflict on the Body of Christ in the world, if he could seduce Irish men and women away from Christ. Now is the time of testing for Ireland. This generation is once more a generation of decision”.

In that same homily, Pope Saint John Paul mentioned several challenges for the Irish people thirty five years ago. Let me mention three. Firstly, he spoke about marriage and the family. He said: “Modern conditions and social changes have created new patterns and new difficulties for family life and for Christian marriage”. With this in mind he called on the Irish people to:

“… Revere and protect your family and your family life, for the family is the primary field of Christian action for the Irish laity…. May Ireland always continue to give witness before the modern world to her traditional commitment to the sanctity and the indissolubility of the marriage bond. May the Irish always support marriage, through personal commitment and through positive social and legal action…. hold high the esteem for the wonderful dignity and grace of the Sacrament of marriage… Respect the God-given cycle of life, for this respect is part of our respect for God himself, who created male and female, who created them in his own image, reflecting his own life-giving love in the patterns of their sexual being”.

A second major theme of the late Holy Father’s prophetic homily at Limerick was respect for life.  He called for “an absolute and holy respect the sacredness of human life from the first moment of its conception”. He reminded the Irish people, as the Second Vatican Council had stated, that abortion is one of the “abominable crimes” (Gaudium et Spes 51). “To attack unborn life at any moment from its conception”, he said, “is to undermine the whole moral order which is the true guardian of the well-being of man. The defence of the absolute inviolability of unborn life is part of the defence of human rights and human dignity. May Ireland never weaken in her witness, before Europe and before the whole world, to the dignity and sacredness of all human life, from conception until death”.

Thirdly, he called on the fathers and mothers of Ireland to make their homes places of daily family prayer, and to believe in their vocation, “that beautiful vocation of marriage and parenthood which God has given to you… Do not think that anything you will do in life is more important than to be a good Christian father or mother… The future of the Church, the future of humanity depend in great part on parents and on the family life that they build in their homes. The family is the true measure of the greatness of a nation, just as the dignity of man is the true measure of civilization”.

It was in this context that Pope St John Paul II went on to give a ‘plug’ for the forthcoming pastoral letter of the Irish bishops, entitled Handing on the Faith in the Home, which was already in the writing, and which was to be a key driver in the Irish Church’s follow up to the papal visit.

The first paragraphs of the 1980 pastoral letter strongly reference the Pope’s visit and messages and outline the key theological principle which underpins the handing on of faith in the home.  This principle is profoundly stated in the Baptism ceremony: “Parents, you are to be the first teachers of your child in the ways of the faith. May you be the best of teachers, bearing witness to the faith by what you say and do, in Christ Jesus our Lord”.

At the beginning of a baptism ceremony, the priest welcomes the parents with their baby at the Church, and after asking them for the name of their child and to formally declare their desire to have the child baptised, he says: “You have asked to have your child baptised. In doing so, you are accepting the responsibility of training him/her in the practice of the faith.  Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?”

The parents answer: “We do.”, showing that they are freely and consciously accepting their duty as Christian parents

This fundamental principle, that the faith is primarily handed on in the home and family, from generation to generation, goes back to our pre-Christian roots.  The people of Israel had a very strong sense that faith is sustained and passed on in the home, from parents to children, from elders to the next generations, as Psalm 78 puts it: ‘we will tell to a generation still to come, the praises of the Lord, his power, the wonderful deeds he has done… so that a generation still to come might know it, children yet to be born’.

The first Christians nourished and strengthened their faith by meeting in one another’s homes for the breaking of bread. And so we hear about “the Church that meets in the house of Prisca and Aquila” or “the Church at the house of Philemon”. Thus the Second Vatican Council spoke about the home and family being ‘the domestic Church” often marked by prominent Christian symbols like the Crucifix, the Sacred Heart picture, the Holy Water font or an image of our Blessed Mother Mary.

The catechesis which happens in the home, between parents and children, precedes and enriches every other form of catechesis, and without it, there is little chance of the next generation coming to know the love of God, the joy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or ever feeling that they fully belong to the living and worshipping community of the Church. The 1980 pastoral letter of the Irish bishops Handing on the Faith in the Home recognised, however, that parents and the family needed support in the task of raising their children and young people in the faith – handing on the faith rested on three pillars: the home as the central pillar, with the school and parish ‘pillars’ supporting what happens in the family.

For this reason the bishops thirty-five years ago commended highly to parents the importance of Catholic schools, and encouraged parents not to outsource education in faith to the teachers alone, but to talk to their children about what they were learning in school, to participate fully in the important sacramental preparation programmes for Reconciliation and First Communion, and to maintain a strong interest in the faith development of their children even through the difficult years of adolescence.

Reading the bishops’ pastoral Handing on the Faith in the Home thirty-five years on, it is clear that the bishops were speaking within a very different cultural context and from a different place in society.  Their words presumed a common denominator of faith and practice for the vast majority of people in Ireland, something that quite simply does not exist today. I therefore find myself reflecting on what such a pastoral letter addressing handing on the faith might look like today.  I do so by thinking of some of the challenges and opportunities that we are presented with.


Firstly, the picture of family life in Ireland has changed radically since 1980.  Many more young people are choosing to live together before marriage, or are choosing not to get married at all either in the Church or civilly. More than a quarter of married couples in Ireland separate or get divorced. Many women or men are raising children as single parents, and grandparents are increasingly stepping in to offer more stability to children who have been affected by wounded relationships.

I think we can all accept that family life has become much more complex and complicated over the past thirty-five years. That the majority of Irish people in these diverse family situations self-identify as Catholic, presents an obvious pastoral challenge to the Church both in reworking our traditional understanding of family as domestic Church, and in finding ways of accompanying and calling those whose lives are no longer lived in accordance with the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family.

Secondly, and perhaps as a result of the trends I’ve just been speaking about, our Catholic schools have become much more diverse. Children from all those home and family environments I have mentioned are welcomed to our Catholic schools and yet we have done little to evaluate and review the 1980s template of home, school and parish working together in handing on the faith.

Only a minority of our parents and children are now practising their faith on a regular basis. In many of our primary schools, therefore, teachers find themselves quite literally ‘in loco parentis’, being the first to introduce children to God, to teach them to pray and what it means to be loved by God.  First Holy Communion and Confirmation teachers can be disappointed that, having put so much effort into explaining the meaning and beauty of the sacraments to their pupils, many parents are simply not following up by bringing their children to Mass on a regular basis.

I know too that many teachers express their personal lack of confidence when it comes to witnessing to their faith in any kind of public manner, either inside or outside school. In some cases they too may have fallen away from regular practice of their faith, or perhaps they have had insufficient support or mature formation in knowing and understanding the truths of the Catholic faith. For whatever reason, they may feel uncomfortable in leading prayer at assembly or form class, or talking to their pupils about faith matters – especially in an age when young people are well able to put you ‘on the spot’ over a tricky moral dilemma or about some aspect of the Church’s teaching.

Thirdly, from the point of view of parish, there is the challenge to reimagine how to reach out to homes and families.  For many years we simply presumed that families came to us; they were there on Sunday, even if in some cases it was simply out of a sense of duty or family tradition.  Families understood, however subconsciously, the link between home, school and parish.  The liturgy, including the homily, was a source of weekly catechesis and nourishment in the faith, and a sense of belonging or parish community was nurtured as children grew older.  The past thirty-five years has seen a radical change in that sense of parish identity. Those who still practice regularly will sometimes travel to Mass in neighbouring areas, or even ‘shop around’ for good liturgical experience. The fever and rush of life in the 21st century affects us all and, with fewer vocations, there is increased pressure on remaining priests to do home visitation or preside over special liturgies and events to help build belonging and community.


In saying all this I am in no way trying to sound depressing! On the contrary, I see these challenges as the springboard of opportunity for new evangelisation and a new chapter for the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Firstly, how can we find new opportunities to speak to the diversity of family life and situations in Ireland today? What are the pastoral challenges faced by the Church in presenting its precious and prophetic teaching on marriage in today’s world? These are precisely the questions that will be addressed at the Synod of Bishops in Rome beginning next weekend. I ask for your prayers for Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and myself as we travel to the Synod and for the guidance of the Holy Spirit on everyone present. The challenge facing the forthcoming Synod will be to find ways of remaining completely faithful to the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family while at the same time reaching out in a compassionate and merciful way to those whose home and family situations are very different.

Thirty-five years ago the Irish bishops identified “handing on the faith in the home” as the most important way of responding to the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland.  I would support a renewed Mission to the Family in Ireland over the next five years, implementing the recommendations of the forthcoming Synod, proclaiming courageously to Irish society the Good News about marriage between a man and a woman always open to life, and reaching out pastorally to welcome those who may feel estranged from the Church because of their particular family situation.  The family has in the past been the heart and hearth of faith in this country – despite the challenges there is no reason why it cannot be so again in the present and future.  But to get there we need to name and acknowledge the reality, not be afraid to speak the truth in love, faithfully, untiringly and with tenderness offering the prophetic teaching of our Church, while conscious that not everyone will want to hear or to change.

At a practical level I suggest two particular pastoral supports for marriage and the family that we might consider developing further in Ireland.  The first is a parish or pastoral area based approach to preparing for the sacrament of marriage including prayer, catechesis and practical advice for couples on daily living the sacrament in faith and practice.  This I think could be followed up by opportunities for marriage support in the early years to help couples further develop their understanding of the sacrament in the first three to five years of marriage.  I would recommend these pre- and post-marriage ‘support’ services should be facilitated by couples for other groups of couples, by families for families, and should include an element of prayer, the Word of God and the Eucharist.

A second help for families would be Prayer Guidance for couples and young parents on ‘praying with your children’ and ‘introducing your children to the faith’, even before they go to school.  Prayer in the home is so important to the future of the faith that it would be worth investing considerable energy, resources and creativity in the next five years into developing a new ‘apostolate of family prayer’ for the people of Ireland.

That brings me to the second challenge I mentioned – that of supporting our Catholic schools, and once more I consider that the challenging circumstances facing our Catholic schools might be turned into opportunities for handing on the faith.  Again I would like to make two practical suggestions for our Catholic schools:

Firstly, the launch this month of the new primary religious education programme provides a golden opportunity to reinvigorate the catechetical opportunities for our children and to encourage teachers, parents and parishes to become fully involved in handing on the faith.

This is the first time that the Catholic schools of Ireland have had a complete curriculum at primary level with full recognitio from the Holy See. It provides renewed opportunities to help young people grow in love of God and in their understanding of their faith in a progressive and re-enforcing manner.  I encourage all of you to obtain and study a copy of the new curriculum and to support it in whatever way you can. 

One note of caution however: a school catechetical programme alone, no matter how rigorous, will not secure the handing on of the faith. It will succeed only insofar as it builds upon the lived faith experience of the young people in their homes and family.  I would also strongly caution against the notion that some kind of dream catechetical programme will solve the problems of the Catholic Church  in Ireland today! Of course there is a need to help Irish Catholics develop a deeper awareness and understanding of the truths of the faith, but if this is not based on a personal encounter and relationship with Christ then it will do little to revitalise the Church or build the kingdom of God.

In his talk to adult students of the Catechism who had gathered at Maynooth in July, Bishop Dominique Rey of Frejus-Toulon emphasised that catechesis ought to be measured by the extent to which it is kerygmatic and Christocentric. In other words: does it proclaim the Good News? Does it foster a deeper relationship with Christ? It is a point familiar to us from Evangelii Gaudium where Pope Francis says “We must not think that in catechesis the kerygma gives way to a supposedly more “solid” formation. Nothing is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful and wisdom-filled than that initial proclamation”. Alongside the new curriculum and the Grow in Love series which will accompany it, I would like to see a Catholic Prayer Book for Children and Parents, a Primary School Catechism for Children and Parents to help consolidate, at home and in parish, the key learning outcomes at school, leading seamlessly to the Youcat for post-primary level and on to the ‘grown-ups’ Irish Catholic Catechism for Adults.

Secondly on the theme of Catholic schools, I think the launch of the new primary programme offers opportunities to look at faith development and catechesis opportunities for teachers who are at the forefront of contact with our young people.  I would like to see our Catholic teacher education institutions developing initial and inservice faith formation for teachers so that their knowledge and understanding of their personal faith is deepened and fostered through contact with other committed Catholic teachers.  I recommend the formation of Catholic teacher sodalities or fraternities at diocesan level so that faith-filled young teachers can meet to affirm and enlighten one another.

Finally, I also see the challenges for parishes today as opportunities.  The downturn in priestly vocations can provide a renewed impetus to rediscover and nourish the distinctive vocation and ministry of the laity in Ireland.  This is already happening at many levels where lay people are active not just in administrative or governance roles, but also at the centre of faith development and catechesis in some parishes.  In line with Share the Good News, the National Catechetical Directory, I would like to see the day when every parish or pastoral area has a trained lay catechist who could work alongside the parish priest, parish pastoral council and school religious education coordinators in ensuring that the triad of home school and parish are re-imagined for the twenty-first century.

The Synod next month shall focus much of its attention on the vocation of the family and on the mission of the family in today’s world. I would encourage family ministry in every parish – along the lines of a post-baptismal ‘neo-catechumenate’ with ‘families in mission’ helping other families to meet, minister to each other and support each other in the faith development of parents, young children, teenagers and adults – the Church which meets in the house of Eamon, or Sheena and John, or wherever! I was always taken by the Youth 2000 motto of ‘youth leading youth to the heart of the Church’.  What if we had more  ‘families leading families to the heart of the Church’?  The opportunities for pre-school ‘mothers and toddlers’ faith groups, for faith ‘coffee mornings’, and evening faith-social gatherings are immense – but they need imagination, creativity and the calling forth of charisms that are already being poured out on the lay people of Ireland by the Holy Spirit!  If thousands of Irish people can go out on a weekly basis for weigh-ins and talks at slimming clubs, then why not Prayer Guidance, Soul Friendship groups, Lectio Divina, Eucharistic Adoration, apostleship of prayer initiatives, and many other such ideas which nourish the soul and the spirit?

If we were to write a new pastoral letter entitled Handing on the Faith in Ireland Today, then perhaps some of what I have mentioned here would be in it.

Back in 1979 Pope Saint John Paul II highlighted three areas in which he said Ireland must choose: marriage and family life; respect for the sacredness of human life; and developing family prayer and the vocation of Christian parents.  Thirty-five years on, although much has changed, many of these challenges remain.  But we are in a new Ireland and our Church is faced with the challenge of becoming missionary and with embracing the new evangelisation. 

The National Catechetical Directory, Share the Good News, coupled with Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium, and the recommendations of the forthcoming Synod provide us with lots of food for thought on how we are called to hand on the faith anew in this country.  I have no doubt that there are many committed young Catholics who are up for the challenges and who are yearning to grasp the opportunities that this time presents for them as committed Catholic lay people, religious or priests.  This is our time.  God has called us today and will give us all the graces we need. It is my privilege to be called by God to be a priest and bishop at one of the most exciting and adventurous times to be a Catholic in Ireland.  I am up for the challenge and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, I look forward to finding new ways of proclaiming, building and handing on the faith to the next generation of Irish people. I hope you will join me, and thank you for listening.