I listened to stories (and poems) of old Ireland at my mother’s knee. Our people have known the main elements of the Christian faith for over 1500 years. But now they are forgetting.
Past generations (although not my mother) misfired in passing on the Word of God. As a result, in the words of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, people now “do not know the scriptures. They do not know how to use the scriptures. We do not take the time to encounter Jesus in the scriptures.” He asks “What do we really know of the message of Jesus?”
All is not lost. Young people who never saw their parents go to church still have a familiarity, however hazy, with ideas such as God, Jesus, mankind, sin, salvation, authority, revelation.
But time is not on our side. How long will the window to young Irish hearts be as open as it is today? Ten years? Five? How do we get access to this window? One place stands out – the university.
The gospel is public information. We need to secure this position and there’s no better way to do that than in the public marketplace. The university is unusually situated as that marketplace. It is the acknowledged repository of our culture. It is the node for exchanging knowledge.
Our access to students is more free than it has been in their life so far. They will never be this open again until they are in their fifties. They go to university to think – to get their minds changed.
Back to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.
He told students at Magdalen College Cambridge this year about a visit he made to the Pope: “I arrived well prepared with all my statistics and my analysis of the bright spots and the shadows of Catholicism in Dublin. I had statistics about priests, about institutions, about Mass attendance.” But then he got a surprise.“Instead of asking me about the number of parishes he quizzed me about the relationship between faith and universities”. Good question.
Here’s the number
No student at an Irish University should graduate without hearing how to respond to Christ. There are 99,911 undergraduates at Irish universities right now. If we are going to do whatever it takes to make the choice of following Jesus real to them, what will that mean – for me? for believing students? for Christian movements? for lecturers? for chaplains? for churches?
It will mean all hands on deck – surely including IFES www.ifesireland.org and their great apologetics website www.getserious.ie and groups like Living Stones www.livingstonesoc.com who know how to give a special welcome to international students. Agapé aims to equip at www.agape.ie/move.
Christian fellowships of all kinds need to be ready to be become adopted by students – and such fellowships can’t afford to be anti-intellectual. And Christian lecturers play a key role here – surely what students are actually taught at university matters hugely.
What would it look like for a university to be saturated with the gospel? As it happens I have seen that with my own eyes at NUI Galway (then UCG) in the 1970s – at the time when the current Taoiseach and the current Tánaiste studied there and the current President of Ireland was a lecturer.
In his book “An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Ireland  John Waters writes that in the 70s and 80s groups such as “Campus Crusade for Christ began to evangelise in the streets and campuses of Irish cities”. He remarks that “people had begun to flirt with other forms of access to a deity”. However “this did not become a general trend”.
Oops. Let’s not make that mistake again!