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Mater Dei Centre for Catholic Education


The AREFD project

Welcome to the Adult Religious Education and Faith Development (AREFD) research project.

Since 2018, researchers at the Mater Dei Centre for Catholic Education (MDCCE) at Dublin City University have been working on an exciting three-year project which explores the nature, scope and potential of religious education and faith development for adults in Ireland.  Funded by the Presentation Sisters North East Province, the project is already enhancing public awareness of the great work already happening in communities, parishes and groups.  In consultation with various people already actively engaged in adult religious education and faith development, the research team is gathering rich data on the spectrum of religious education and faith developments for adults in Ireland.  As the project progresses, it is hoped that the learning gained from the lived wisdom of those involved in AREFD in Ireland will encourage and inform many different groups across Ireland in setting up new opportunities for adults to explore. Below is some more detail on what has already taken place during the AREFD and some indications of next steps.

All queries in relation to this project please email bernadette.sweetman@dcu.ie

Below is a video by Dr. Bernadette Sweetman introducing the project.

What is the AREFD project about?

Adult religious education and faith development in Ireland has traditionally been conceived of as a process whereby faith communities/parishes provide talks or workshops usually delivered by outside experts.  Such input is often more focused on those who already committed, and are actively involved in ministry.  A range of possibilities which encourage adults generally to explore and deepen their faith experience and grow more fully into their faith community is desirable.

A culture of provision can be observed, locally and nationally, with little emphasis on review, evaluation and organisational learning.  There is a tendency to continue to do the same things without gaining much insight into how effectively initiatives contribute to supporting adults in learning about their faith and living a faith-filled life. 

At the same time, emerging forms of spirituality and popular piety continue to capture the adult imagination.  A spiritual sensibility remains but there can be a deficit of religious language through which people engage with each other in deepening their experience within a faith community.

In Ireland, various groups and communities are involved in different types of formal and informal activities that in some way are aimed at helping adults achieve a greater self-understanding, make sense of their lives and find joy.  Some may have an explicit religious focus and belong within a denominational expression.  Some may be more broadly spiritual.  No doubt however, across Ireland, there are adults in search of such opportunities for development but they might not know where to look or how to get started.  How do we find out about such models of best practice and make the connections so that more adults become engaged?

The AREFD project focuses on all these issues and seeks to facilitate a re-energising of adult religious education and faith development in Ireland.  By bringing together the wisdom and experience of existing initiatives, the research team aim to contribute, both at an academic and pastoral level, to the development of new AREFD opportunities.

The AREFD project so far: Phase 1 Online survey

The first phase of the project (an online survey) was live on the MDCCE website from May to June 2019. It invited adults to explore their understanding and experiences of religious education when they were at school but also bring them beyond that, to what matters to them today.  In particularly, it encouraged adults to reflect on their how they express their beliefs and values; the opportunities (or lack thereof) for religious education /faith development at various stages of life; and, ultimately, what would Irish adults like to see happening in the future to engage them in ongoing religious education and faith development. 738 adults responded.  These hailed from all 32 counties and from all age groups. In this survey, respondents indicated their understanding of religious education and faith development.  They articulated their beliefs and values and provided information on both the positive influences to date, and the possible future avenues they would like to explore in this area.  

Initial insights into the rich and diverse data obtained in this survey was the content of Dr. Sweetman's keynote lecture at the Network for Researchers in Catholic Education 2019 Conference, which took place at Dublin City University on the 17th / 18th October 2019. The news item can be read here.  

 An article entitled 'What might a religious or spiritual adult look like?' was published on the RTE Brainstorm website in September 2019 and this also drew from the survey data.

 Dr. Sweetman presented a paper focused solely on the Catholic cohort of the survey in a presentation at the 2nd International Conference on Catholic Religious Education in Schools in Melbourne on 14th February 2020.  The news item  can be read here.


Further publications and presentations are to come.

Get in Touch: Online and Distance AREFD: Tell us more about your experience

An area of religious education and faith development that has received a lot more attention in recent times has been that of online or distance religious education and faith development.  In the AREFD online survey, adults expressed interest in exploring opportunities that involved blended learning (i.e. a mixture of online / distance and in-person gatherings). 

With the changes implemented due to COVID-19, the ways in which adults in Ireland engage in religious education and faith development are also changing. This is particularly evident in social media channels at present.

Therefore, it is a good opportunity for us in this moment to gather information about online / distance religious education and faith development for adults.  We are inviting you to share with us your experiences of adult religious education and faith development particularly in the area of online and or distance learning. With your assistance, by sharing your experiences, the research team aim to bring such initiatives to the attention with other groups and communities who may be seeking ways to create new opportunities and might benefit from some assistance.

If you are aware of an online / distance learning initiative for religious education and / or faith development for adults, please complete the brief form below.  It is anonymous and will only take a few minutes.  Your work may inspire others and build community in new ways.

Thank you.

Next steps for the AREFD project

Phase 2 – Consultations with existing AREFD work

Within a short time of launching the survey, a number of different groups and individuals contacted the AREFD research team to bring awareness to the existing work in religious education and faith development for adults, as well as highlight the great interest amongst adults for more opportunities.  During late 2019 / 2020, the team began to meet with a range of people who have been involved in different forms of AREFD for a number of years.  These consultations, which are still ongoing, are encouraging reflective practice.  Those consulted are looking back on the processes they have engaged in, the activities they have carried out and the resources they are using.  This has been a great opportunity for them to reflect on their achievements and challenges and consider how they might refine or adapt their work, or even explore new aspects. 

Phase 3

As we progress through 2020 /2021, the research team will focus on a number of activities:

  • The AREFD research team will make available a free downloadable Reflection Pack on this website.  This will be generated based on the wisdom and experience of those who were consulted during the second phase of the project, as well as from insights gleaned from the academic literature reviewed. 
  • A small number of pilot projects across the country will be accompanied as they put in place a variety of new opportunities for AREFD.  These will be documented as part of the AREFD project.

Stay tuned for more on these developments.