The uncertain future of Catholic Ireland
The College Chapel at St. Patrick’s College of Maynooth has 454 carved oak stalls for seminarians and priests. They run in serried ranks down the length of its nave, making it the largest choir chapel in the world. The church itself is a masterpiece of Gothic Revival, and the ceiling of the church offers a kind of visual catechism, taking worshippers through salvation history by means of painted images.
Since St. Patrick’s College’s founding in 1795 in County Kildare as the national seminary for the Catholic Church in Ireland, it has trained over 11,000 priests—not just for Ireland, but for the global church. The seminary also inspired two major missionary societies, the first directed to China and the latter to Africa. Many American Catholics may also remember that the parish priest of their childhood was from Ireland; that man was likely trained in Maynooth.
When construction on the College Chapel began in 1875, Maynooth was the largest seminary in all of Christendom. It is no accident that the media portrayal in the United States (and many other countries) of a Catholic priest is of an Irish man with a thick brogue. In 1899, 82 priests “for Ireland, America, and Australia” were ordained at Maynooth.
In the fall of 2017, a new class of first-year seminarians arrived at Maynooth to begin their training for the priesthood.
There were six men.
Ireland in the Coming Times
In total, there are 36 seminarians living at Maynooth this year (another 25 are assigned to Maynooth but live elsewhere). The decline in priestly vocations in Ireland is paralleled by similarly stark decreases in numbers for men’s and women’s religious orders. “The decline in vocations is not even the biggest problem we face,” said Stanislaus Kennedy, R.S.C., known throughout Ireland as Sister Stan, a social justice advocate and founder of the charity Focus Ireland, now the largest voluntary organization in the country. “The biggest problem is the decline in participation by the laity, especially by the young people.” Recent surveys confirm this, showing steep declines throughout the Republic of Ireland in religious practice and reception of the sacraments.
More than 90 percent of Irish Catholics reported attending Mass at least weekly in the early 1970s; recent surveys put that percentage at between 30 and 35 percent.
More than 90 percent of Irish Catholics reported attending Mass at least weekly in the early 1970s; recent surveys put that percentage at between 30 and 35 percent in recent years. In the Archdiocese of Dublin, it is less than 20 percent, and some urban parishes report weekly attendance as less than 2 percent of the Catholic population. As many as one in ten Irish now identify as “nones,” claiming no religious affiliation.
The numbers augur an uncertain future for the Catholic Church in Ireland, long a place where Catholicism seemed sure of deep roots and high adherence to practice and tradition. Will Ireland follow the same trajectory as Quebec, an overwhelmingly Catholic culture that almost completely rejected the church in two generations to become one of the most secular societies on earth? Or will it resemble the Catholic Church in the United States, where a community diminished by sex abuse scandals and a decades-long vocations crisis still bleeds numbers but seems vital enough to survive? Or will there be some unanticipated future for the famous “land of saints and scholars”?
How and Why?
There is no single cause for what ails the Irish Catholic church, but without question a primary source of anger and disillusionment is the crisis caused by sexual abuse of young people by members of the Catholic clergy and religious, which was doubly painful in Ireland because of the all-encompassing authority of the Catholic Church over Irish society throughout the 20th century. The pervasiveness of clericalism in Irish Catholic culture contributed to a culture of noblesse oblige among the clergy, and civil authorities were far more likely to defer to bishops and the superiors of religious orders when deciding whether to pursue cases of misconduct. Reports of other kinds of physical abuse in Irish schools, orphanages, “Magdalene laundries” and other church institutions have been legion in the Irish media in recent years. Coverups and transfers of repeat abusers was easier in a society that reflexively trusted religious institutions. That trust has been badly damaged, if not destroyed. “The priests thought they were more powerful than the police,” one man in a pub in Galway told me, “and they were right.”
This disillusionment is not felt only among laypeople, either. I conducted a group interview with the Rev. Michael Mullaney, who is the president of St. Patrick’s College at Maynooth, and the Rev. Michael Collins and the Rev. Tomas Surlis, both directors of formation at the seminary. They noted that the seemingly endless revelations about sexual and physical abuse in the church had deeply affected priests and seminarians too, not to mention potential vocations.
“There’s a sense of bereavement among the clergy as well [as among laypeople], and a sense of fear around intimacy,” commented Father Surlis. “There was a tactile nature to the ministry of the priests and the religious orders, to their interaction with the people, and that is not so much the case anymore.”
“That has affected our work with young people,” Father Mullaney agreed. “That trust and that connection was broken. It’s very hard with that air of suspicion present…. We have to rebuild that trust, and that’s going to take a lot of time.”
A second reason for Ireland’s changing church profile is perhaps counterintuitive when one considers the first. The Ireland of today is an extraordinarily open society, economically and culturally. An English-speaking, well-educated population was poised to benefit from globalization and the technology boom of the 1990s and early 2000s. Ireland also benefited handsomely from joining the European Union (and then suffered deeply from E.U.-mandated austerity measures after the 2008 economic collapse). Full membership in the European Union brought infrastructure improvements, access to new markets and immigration—the last an awkward reality for a largely homogenous population unaccustomed to diversity of creed, culture or ethnicity.
The economic successes of Ireland after full integration into the European Union and the acceleration of globalization were due to two things, commented the Very Rev. Diarmuid Martin, archbishop of Dublin, in an interview in Dublin in November. “We had a very well-educated workforce, and we had an open economy. We were ready for it. But with the open economy comes cultural openness…. That’s a positive thing, but it means we have to realize that the dominant forces in Irish culture come from outside Ireland in many ways.”
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin: "We have to realize that the dominant forces in Irish culture come from outside Ireland in many ways.”
Rapid urbanization has also changed Irish society. The Republic’s population will soon pass five million (still far below an estimated eight million in 1848, immediately before the Famine), but fully 50 percent of that population lives in the vicinity of Dublin. Other studies have noted that fewer than 10 percent of the Irish workforce is involved in agriculture. The church is grappling with how to evangelize a changed society even while that society is rapidly being transformed before its eyes. The Taoiseach (prime minister) of Ireland, Leo Varadkar, recently called for a referendum in May that could make abortion legal, a prospect that would have been unthinkable just 10 years ago. Mr. Varadkar is also the first child of an immigrant (his father was born in Mumbai) and the first openly gay man to be elected Taoiseach.
Traditional roles for women have also changed dramatically outside the church, but not inside. “There’s no doubt that generations of women feel that they haven’t been included in areas of responsibility in the church, not necessarily just the priesthood,” Archbishop Martin said. “Grandmothers feel this way, mothers feel this way, but their daughters feel in a much stronger way that [the church] isn’t necessarily a place where they belong. You can’t deny it.”
For generations, the church relied on Irish society, particularly the schools, to be the primary vehicle for faith formation and transmission.
Archbishop Martin was blunt in pointing out another source of malaise: the Irish church’s unwillingness in the past to engage in significant evangelization efforts or faith formation on its own soil. For generations, he said, the church relied on Irish society, particularly the schools, to be the primary vehicle for faith formation and transmission. Since catechism in schools was almost universal and many were run by religious orders, few parishes invested resources in adult faith formation. The identification of the Republic of Ireland with a persecuted Catholic Church, the ubiquity and hegemony of church institutions, and cultural taboos against lax religious practice all contributed to keeping the pews full.
“An atheist could learn the catechism by heart and regurgitate it all the time, and never move towards faith,” Archbishop Martin said. “We learned all the rules and the norms, and it was presumed that the basic elements of faith were there…. People felt that there was really very little need to evangelize, that being born into Irish society made you a Catholic.”
Some more traditional voices in the Irish church have laid much of the blame for the decline in vocations and church practice on exactly that loss of traditional religious strictures since the Second Vatican Council, but the formation staff at Maynooth thought otherwise. “If we hadn’t had Vatican II, the decline would have been worse. The disconnect with the world would have been more glaring,” said Father Collins. “At least Vatican II has equipped the church in some way to negotiate the huge social changes we could not have predicted.”
“The key and core insight of the Second Vatican Council is the ecclesiology of communion,” added Father Surlis, “this idea that we are together, disciples on the road. It’s almost as if the Spirit is forcing that upon us, at one level. Yes, the decline of vocations into the priesthood and religious life is worrying, but it’s leading to the emergence of a healthier, more balanced church in this country.”
Culture and Contradiction
The outward signs of a deeply Catholic nation are still visible everywhere in Ireland. The post office in one town outside Dublin, for example, advertises in its window, “Signed Mass cards sold here.” In the middle of Dublin, a huge Nativity scene in late November advertised “Dublin City Council lighting up the city at Christmas.” Passengers still routinely make the sign of the cross when their train or bus passes a church. Shrines and crosses are everywhere, alongside highways as much as along the narrow country lanes, and not all are in ruin.
“Culture tends to be consistent, and in my experience there is nearly always a return to the roots of culture,” commented Mary Kenny, an Irish journalist and a founding member of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement as well as author of Goodbye to Catholic Ireland, in an email interview last December. “What has been will be.... I think the deposit of Irish spirituality will remain, and I’m often surprised by how well-attended Mass can be in Ireland. Recently, on Nov. 1 [the Feast of All Saints], I caught a Mass at Clarendon Street [in Dublin]. Standing room only!”
This attachment to a cultural faith is often expressed alongside a dismissal of the church in ways that can appear openly contradictory. One taxicab driver assured me that he would never darken the door of a church again, so angry was he at the sex abuse scandals and at a culture where clerics held unlimited authority over society. And yet he expressed open affection for the priest who buried his father; and when I pointed out that a St. Padre Pio prayer card graced his windshield, he answered, “Well, of course. He’s my patron saint.”
That same man also objected strongly to recent educational policies that exempt non-Catholic immigrants to Ireland from Catholic religious instruction, because “you can’t be Irish if you don’t learn our faith.”
That combination—a rejection of the institutional church alongside open affection for individual pastoral figures, including parish priests and Ireland’s large number of women religious—was repeated numerous times over eight days of conversations. Again and again I heard some variation of “the church is such a part of Irish life” stated by people who then noted matter-of-factly that they had long since stopped attending Mass.
A Numbers Game—or Not
“From one perspective, something is dying,” said Father Collins. “But from another perspective, you can see that we are in a liminal space: Something new is emerging. There’s something very vibrant happening. That sounds almost like a contradiction, but I think it is the reality.”
As positive factors among disappointing numbers, Father Collins and his fellow priests at Maynooth pointed to the endurance and even growth of other sources of Christian nourishment in Ireland, including pilgrimages, public novenas and frequent visits to nontraditional worship sites, such as the Marian shrine at Knock or the many healing wells and legendary “thin places” of Ireland. The philosopher Charles Taylor has called this style of religious practice “the culture of festivity” in his book A Secular Age, noting that a population of mobile Christians, less tied to familial dwelling places or multigenerational traditions, is more open to “religious experiences” than to regular practice. Ms. Kenny agreed with Mr. Taylor’s thesis, noting that despite widespread secularism and consumerism, pilgrimages like the one to Santiago de Compostela in Spain are more and more popular, and “cathedrals are attracting terrific crowds all over Europe. God works in mysterious ways.”
The Irish church can also rely on a pre-Christian Celtic spirituality whose subtle (and sometimes obvious) influence is everywhere in Ireland.
In this sense, the Irish church can also rely on a pre-Christian Celtic spirituality whose subtle (and sometimes obvious) influence is everywhere in Ireland. Lough Derg, an ancient Celtic religious center that became a Catholic pilgrimage site, grows more popular with every passing year. The same is true of Croagh Patrick, the “Holy Mountain” that is dedicated to St. Patrick but whose religious significance stretches back five millennia.
Similarly, both Archbishop Martin in Dublin and the formation team at Maynooth mentioned the coming World Meeting of Families in Dublin, from Aug. 21 to 26, as a highly anticipated event that should draw huge and enthusiastic crowds. Pope Francis is expected to preside at the closing Mass, making him only the second pope in history to visit Ireland. The first papal visit, by John Paul II in 1979, drew more than 2.5 million people to various public Masses and ceremonies—almost half the population of the island.
At the End of the World
Directly west from Dublin by 150 miles, but a world away in almost every other respect, Inishmaan is one of the Aran Islands, three rocky outposts that sit at the entrance to Galway Bay. They are a geographic extension of “The Burren,” a huge limestone formation that forms much of the topography of nearby County Clare. Though the unforgiving climate and scarce resources of the islands made them little more than bird estuaries for much of known history, evidence of monasteries and abbeys from the fourth century can be found on all three, including the purported homes of St. Colmcille, St. Abigail (St. Gobnait in Irish) and St. Enda. The Aran Islands are a reminder that Christianity did not spread organically or in any kind of territorial sequence. There were Christian monks in the Aran Islands before Augustine wrote his Confessions; there were monasteries on Inishmaan three centuries before Britain was converted to Christianity.
The islands became more heavily populated in the 17th century, covered by farms cultivated by rural Irish peasants driven from their lands during Oliver Cromwell’s genocidal persecutions of Catholics. “They can go to hell,” Cromwell is reputed to have said of Ireland’s Catholics while driving them west, “or they can go to Connaught.” Some scholars estimate half of Ireland’s 1.5 million people died in the violence or the ensuing famines. The British also used the Aran Islands to imprison captured Catholic priests before they were sold into indentured servitude in the West Indies.
“They can go to hell,” Cromwell is reputed to have said of Ireland’s Catholics while driving them west, “or they can go to Connaught.”
The islands have almost no natural soil, and the process by which settlers coaxed life out of the hard ground seems born of a superhuman stubbornness. Carting sand and seaweed up the hills and cliffs, farmers cleared land by stacking loose rock in dry-stone walls and then spreading the sand-seaweed mixture directly atop the limestone surface, finally applying a thin layer of topsoil. From this soil could be coaxed a meager crop of potatoes and other vegetables, as well as grass for grazing cattle and sheep. Fishing also provided nutrition, though frequent storms and treacherous wave patterns made this a perilous endeavor. Many a gravestone or memorial marker on the islands bluntly reads “Drowned.”
Even today, the islands are remarkable for their isolation and stark, wild beauty. They are also among the few remaining places in Ireland where all the residents speak Irish fluently. On a walk to the top of Inishmaan at the end of November, I became convinced there was a woman keening nearby in the ruins of a monastery. No; it was the frigid Atlantic wind screaming through the chinks of the island’s endless dry-stone walls. Enda and Abigail, I thought, were of sterner stuff than we; so too the modern-day residents; so too the thousands of priests who listened to that banshee scream as they awaited a prison ship and a life of forced labor. For anyone with an interest in the history and dynamism of Christianity, these islands are a source of fascination.
But today, the Irish clergy shortage means that the three islands share among them one priest. The residents of Inishmaan have Mass in winter on every other Sunday.
What is the future for Catholic Ireland? Some of the institutional responses to a diminished church will be familiar to Americans: parish clustering, increased reliance on professionally trained lay ministers, greater stress on evangelization beyond the catechism taught in the schools. “We need to do a lot more catechesis and youth ministry,” said Father Mullaney, “as well as reaching out to people who have been disaffected or alienated because of the [sexual abuse] scandals.” Lay salaries—in parishes and in schools—will need to be funded, either publicly or privately, to a greater degree than those of priests and religious in the past.
“I have heard priests and bishops say that we will be a smaller church, but that we will have a stronger identity,” commented Sister Kennedy. “But I don’t think that’s the way to go—that kind of church will be one that is removed from the life of many of the people. What we need instead is a total renewal, a transformation of the way we imagine ourselves.
“We need to bring laypeople into every part of the church,” Sister Kennedy continued. “The pastoral part, the sacramental part, the administrative part. It is not enough simply to encourage people to be eucharistic ministers or to serve on the parish finance committee. Real renewal will [require] laypeople participating in every aspect of the church.
“In the Irish church, laypeople are the ‘outsiders.’ Until laypeople are seen as an integral part of the church and participate fully in it, the church will continue to decline and become a small congregation with little influence,” she said. “If laypeople participate fully as ‘people of God’ as ‘Gaudium et Spes’ proposes, with preferential support for the poor, the priesthood and the rest will take care of itself. And the church, while separated from the state, will have its own place and a clear role: bringer of good news to the whole of society.”
The “sacramental famine” brought on by clergy shortages may prove even more painful for Ireland than for the United States, as the Irish church has not experienced the huge numbers of vocations to the permanent diaconate that the U.S. church enjoyed in the decades following the Second Vatican Council. And another vocation crisis is no less pressing, even if coverage of it is more muted: an unprecedented decline in the number of women religious in Ireland. These women are some of the most beloved public figures in Irish culture.
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin: "We need a church that is relevant more than it is dominant."
Archbishop Martin predicts that the church will seem diminished in many ways but will always be a vital part of Irish life. “We need a church that is relevant more than it is dominant,” he said, and that can sometimes mean looking beyond numbers to larger questions. “There are parishes that have never been as vibrant in the past as they are today, even though numbers may be smaller,” he noted. “But it is a worry that most of those vibrant parishes are middle class. And you have to ask yourself: Why is that? The middle class tends to be the most comfortable and most conformist grouping in society. And the believing community can’t just be a conformist grouping. It must somehow or other be shaking people out of conformity.
“The Irish church has to change gear. And has to notice that the gear has changed.”
Brave New World
Archbishop Martin also cautioned against equating the reality of Irish life with the cultural perceptions of what he called “the Auld Sod brigade,” Irish-American descendants of emigrants whose sentimental memories (real or not) of Ireland are not always or often shared by the nation’s residents. The world of potato farms improbably coaxed out of rocky soil, or of Gothic Revival chapels full of sturdy peasants on the path to the priesthood, has more life in those sentimental memories than in reality. The church may never again look as it did in Maynooth 100 years ago, but the history of places like the Aran Islands suggest it will persist in some vital way. An unexpected personal discovery during my visit suggested that the future of Irish Catholicism, whatever it may be, is tied up with the future of an Ireland that is now far different from what many Americans imagine.
A sister of mine lives with her Irish-born husband and children outside Dublin. I stayed with them for several days during my reporting for this essay. Her eldest son is at Belvedere, the Jesuit prep school in Dublin (its most famous alumnus: James Joyce); her youngest son attends an “Educate Together” school, where catechism is taught after school rather than as part of the curriculum. Both her daughters attend a Catholic school with over 1,000 students. In some ways, exactly what I had expected.
But at one point I heard her on the phone with two of our other siblings discussing future travel plans. A visit from the United States had been complicated because her eldest son had a water polo tournament in Malta, and her eldest daughter had a field trip that same week to Norway. It was a shock to me, and would be that to the “Auld Sod brigade” as well.
The Irish are Europeans now.