Near UCD’s new multimillion euro Science Block is a small and understated chapel; Our Lady Seat of Wisdom. Students hurrying between lectures don’t pay it much notice. This is representative of the growing secularisation of Irish young people.
A report published by the Irish Catholic Bishop conference in 2011 found that only 18.6% of Irish Catholics between the ages of 18-24 attend mass weekly. Statistics like this are giving weight to movements by groups such as Atheist Ireland that aim to end faith formation lessons in Irish Catholic schools. While the inclusion of lessons on atheism in Irish multidenominational schools has recently been announced.
Through it all, this generation of Irish college students are leading the rising tide of scepticism and religious apathy. All this has led to an unstated social disapproval of religious practice amongst students in UCD. Religion could be described as ‘uncool’ at the very least.
“The culture is not favourable towards religious practice,” says Fr. Leon Ó Giolláin, a Jesuit and member of UCD’s chaplaincy team. For religious students, he claims, “It’s more difficult… They have to be courageous.”
Christine Pereira, auditor of the Newman Society, UCD’s society for Catholic students, disagrees. She says she has not found it difficult to continue to practice religion. “In the two years that I have been in UCD, I’ve yet to come across anyone who has judged me because of my faith… I’ve actually received a couple of encouraging and positive comments. I’ve never been judged by anyone.”
Eamonn Barron graduated from UCD this year with an MA in Psychology. He is a student of faith, and agrees with Fr. Ó Giolláin. He says, “Some students could come to college with a somewhat strong faith; they could be practicing.”
He says that these students may find it difficult to maintain this faith. “I feel that they are coming into an environment that isn’t very faith friendly. I would say a number of them fall off.”
Nonetheless, Barron is still a person of faith. “I became more interested in my faith when I came to college… at home I didn’t have any peer support.” According to Pereira, her faith has remained strong for a number of reasons: “Religion has been a very natural part of my life… because of my upbringing and because of my own personal experiences.”
While Barron and Pereira were both practicing Catholics before they came to college, students in UCD have also converted to Catholicism. Fr. Ó Giolláin explains, “There are students who have discovered the faith here in Ireland and asked to be baptised after instruction.” He recalls a Malaysian student who converted from a Buddhist background, and the two still keep in contact. “Friendships that are formed at that level of depth last.”
Peer support is important for holding on to faith, and friendships made through religion tend to last. The Newman Society allows a student of faith to find likeminded people. “They form close, deep and lasting friendships,” says Fr. Ó Giolláin.
Barron also found this to be true: “I probably made my best friends in college through the Newman Society. That’s not to say that my only friends are through the Newman Society, or share my faith.”
Pereira believes religious friendships to be so strong due to the “sense of belonging” these likeminded people share. “I think because of our faith we tend to be really genuine, quite accepting. We tend to try not to judge people usually because that is what our faith teaches us.”
The Newman Society is an active society, with at least two meetings a week during the semester. This year, around 65 students registered for the society, and in total there are more than 100 members. The Society attends inter-Christian gatherings, inter-faith gatherings, organise prayer groups, and organises discussions on topical issues.
Fr. Ó Giolláin says the Newman Society can be important to international students, “There are many foreign students who come into the country who are Catholics from Malaysia. They are minority Catholics in their own country. When they come to Ireland it’s very important for them to find the support in their faith; they find it in the Newman Society.”
Faith is a central part of a person’s life, according to Barron. “Your religion can be something very telling in your own life. It can have a decisive bearing on your own behaviour. It can be very formative and guiding”.
He is glad to be religious because it allows him to rely on the power of prayer in difficult circumstances, but he knows how strange the concept may seem to a non-religious student. “It’s something that might be very alien to some people depending on their background.”
Pereira says, “My faith has been an anchor for me. Especially during challenging times or when I’m confronted with difficult issues. Because of my faith I know what I stand for and why I stand for those things. I feel that because of my faith I always have a place that I can go to, like someone that I can turn to.”
On weekdays, in the little chapel near the Science Block, there is a mass at lunchtime. “Anything between 20 and 40 people would be there,” says Fr. Ó Giolláin. The pews are sparsely filled. There are young faces and old. “They’re standing up against the current,” claims Fr. Ó Giolláin. “They have to be courageous.”