Adult Religious Education and Faith Development Research Project

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

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


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.

Phase 1

The first phase of the project included an online survey which 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.  

The research team also commenced an extensive literature review which both informs the direction of the project and will be compiled in later phases for publication.


2019. Sweetman, B. ‘Adult religious education in Ireland: Pushing the boat out’.  Keynote lecture at the Network for Researchers in Catholic Education 2019 Conference ‘Catholic Education: Formal, informal and lifelong’, DCU 17th - 18th October 2019.

2020, Sweetman, B. ‘Adult Religious Education in Ireland’, presentation at the 2nd International Conference on Catholic Religious Education in Schools in Melbourne on 14th February 2020. 

2020. Byrne, G. & B. Sweetman. ‘Opening up adult religious education in Ireland: The AREFD project’.  Presentation given at ESAI 2019 Conference: Opening up education (online) 3rd - 5th September 2020.


Peer-reviewed publications

2021. Sweetman. B. ‘Adult religious education in Ireland: Pushing the boat out’. In Catholic education: A lifelong journey, edited by G. Byrne & S. Whittle. Veritas: Dublin. . (in press)  

2021. Byrne, G., and B. Sweetman, ‘Opening up adult religious education in Ireland: The AREFD project’.  British Journal of Religious Education (in press).



 ‘Dominant public view of religious persons as less intelligent is lamentable’, Rite & Reason article in The Irish Times by Dr. B. Sweetman, 25th June 2019.

 'What might a religious or spiritual adult look like?' , RTÉ Brainstorm article by Dr. B. Sweetman, 30th August 2019.

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.

 Phase 2 – Consultations

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.  The research team sought to engage with such groups, and others, to delve deeper and acquire a richer insight into their ‘lived wisdom’ gathered from their varied experiences in AREFD.  From late 2019 until April 2021, the team met with a range of people who have been involved in different forms of AREFD for a number of years.  These consultations encouraged reflective practice.  Those consulted looked back on the processes they have engaged in, the activities they have carried out and the resources they have used.  This was 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. 

In the fourteen consultations conducted, twenty two people of all ages situated across the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland took part in either individual interviews or focus groups. Areas in which participants were engaged in adult religious education and / or faith development across both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland included: retreat centres; pilgrimage; Catholic school management; academic research in religious education; training for voluntary pastoral ministry; evangelical ministry; diocesan advisors at primary and post-primary level; youth ministry; and parish ministry.

This rich data continues to be analysed.  


2021. Byrne, G. and Sweetman B. ‘Re-imagining adult religious education in light of COVID-19: The significance of connection.’  Presentation at ESAI 2021 Conference: Possible in education: Reimagining Connections with People, Purpose and Place (online, March)

2021. Sweetman, B. 'Learnings from the AREFD project for the ITE of religious educators'.  Presentation at AULRE 2021: Researching RE: Changing Times for Religious Education' (online, July)



2021. Sweetman, B. 'Learnings from the AREFD project for the initial teacher education of religious educators'.  Journal of Religious Education DOI: 10.1007/s40839-021-00152-8

Continuing and adapting: COVID-19 and the AREFD project

As a result of the impact of COVID-19 on the practical operations of the AREFD project, the Presentation Sisters North East Province have generously provided additional funding to extend the work to the end of 2022.  The research team is very appreciative of this supportive gesture.

COVID-19 restrictions on in-person gatherings and travel directly impacted on the planning for the proposed pilot projects which were originally to take place in phase 3 during 2021.  These will still take place but at a later date than expected, in the extended period of the project of 2021/22.

The emergence of COVID-19 affected people in many ways, including their faith, engagement with Church and with religious education.  This unexpected occurrence led the research team to adapt accordingly and seek ways to capture these experiences in Adult Religious Education and Faith Development during the pandemic. 

This happened in two distinct ways:

  1. The remaining consultations in Phase Two from March 2020 were conducted via Zoom and the topics of online engagement and the impact of lockdown restrictions on the activities of work of the groups became a central feature.  Learning emerging from these discussions will be part of the outputs from Phase Two.
  2. Collaboration with York St. John University on large-scale quantitative research via two online surveys covering the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom:
    1. Coronavirus, Church & You (May – June 2020)
    2. COVID-19 & Church-21 (open now)

You can read more about each of the above surveys at the links provided above.  In particular, the COVID-19 & Church-21 survey remains opening until March 28th 2021 and we would welcome your response.

You can listen to a recent interview about the survey on the link below:

The Morning Show, Spirit Radio 11th March 2021 (25 minutes into the podcast)

There was also an interview on the Faith Alive programme on Midwest Radio on 7th March 2021.  Their website offers a 'listen back' facility here



2021. Sweetman, B. Covid-19 & Church 21: Perspectives on the impact of COVID-19 on the faith lives of Catholics in the Republic of Ireland and the UK.  Presentation at Irish Institute of Catholic Studies Conference: Interdisciplinary perspectives on Catholicism in Ireland and Beyond, Mary Immaculate College (online, August)


2020. Byrne, G. & B. Sweetman. 'Coronavirus and Church: 2020 vision on the meaning of faith in our lives'.  Rite & Reason article in The Irish Times. 23rd June 2020 

2021. Byrne, G. & B. Sweetman. 'Responses of clergy and lay people to the COVID-19 crisis'.  The Furrow 72 (3), 147 - 153

2021. Byrne, G. & B. Sweetman, Faith and Covid: Majority of churchgoers want to return to old patterns' The Irish Times, 11th May. Available at:…



As we progress through 2021 / 2022, the research team will focus on a number of activities:

  • 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.  These include:
    • Know us by our Love.  Listening process in Diocese of Down & Connor.
    • The Spiral Programme.  CEIST online programme of spiritual development for principals.
    • Do Lough Derg from Wherever You Are. Virtual 3 - day pilgrimage. July 2021​​​​​​​.
  • 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. 
  • Other publications will emerge as outputs of the projects over the course of 2022.

Stay tuned for more on these developments.