Can Ireland Make Catholicism Cool?

As the Church sees its flock dwindle in the historically devout nation, leaders and laity attempt to revamp its mission.

Signposts point the way to toilets, Confessions, and Holy Water in the village of Knock, County Mayo, Ireland. (Reuters/Cathal McNaughton)

BELFAST- Sharp, icy winds and slushy sidewalks wouldn't derail Amy Curran and her friends from following through with their daily motto.

"The only way to start the day is to get to Mass."

At 11 a.m. on a snowy spring Friday in Belfast, Curran and her four friends -- 78- to 86-year-old lifelong Catholics -- gather around her kitchen table for coffee after church. Their fervent devotion to the Catholic faith offers a glimpse into an era during which Ireland was called "the most Catholic country in the world" by Pope Paul VI in 1946.

Nearly seven decades later, in an aftermath of sex abuse scandals and growing secularization, the Catholic Church in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland grapples with declining parishes and disaffected Catholics. In the Republic, for instance, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin acknowledged in 2011 that some Dublin parishes have as little as 18 percent of Catholics attending Mass each week. Religious leaders and laity agree some form of renewal is needed to resuscitate what remains, but deciding how to get there is where agreement ends.

The Archdiocese of Dublin is one place where such opinions contrast sharply.

Religious education is the first thing Church leaders want to tackle. Meanwhile, Catholic reformers want a complete overhaul of Church doctrine. Their sole common ground is Vatican II: Namely, both groups say the most significant overhaul of the Church in centuries never fully reached Ireland.

"We really haven't received the wisdom and insights of the Second Vatican Council yet," said Fr. Damian McNeice, who assists Archbishop Martin as master of ceremonies in the Dublin Archdiocese. "It hasn't completely filtered down."

For Archbishop Martin, change will start when the Church relinquishes control of Ireland's schools. According to him, the Church "has failed" in how it's handled education in Ireland. Martin wants education that will cultivate lifelong faith, rather than preparing students to go through the motions to receive the sacraments.

"There is need for a better type of religious education. Faith isn't just 'anything goes.' It has to be accompanied by people who make that part of their life," Martin said in a recent interview. "For those who grew up during the Second Vatican Council, there was a great sense to commit better to solidarity than there is now."

There's more solidarity among Catholics in the North, like Curran and her friends, largely because of their country's history. The tension between Catholics and Protestants during The Troubles- which began in the 1960s and ended in 1998- caused religion to define one's identity within the community.

But Vatican II still didn't break through as much as Catholics in the North would have liked.

"There was a sense of not feeling like the Church was theirsĀ­," said Paula McKeown, who hosted "listening" sessions in 2011 at the behest of Bishop Noel Treanor of the Down & Connor Diocese in Belfast. Their objective was to pinpoint what the 3,000 Catholics in the diocese wanted done differently. The overwhelming response: They wanted Vatican II to be fully realized, starting with a Church that heeded their concerns.


The Catholic Church was as austere as it was powerful when Amy Curran was growing up, with distinct separation between the people and the clergy.

"Priests were on pedestals," said Curran. "You were told something and you wouldn't have questioned it."

But as more people began rethinking their allegiance to the Church following the country's secularization and sex abuse scandals, the "us versus them" attitude became less tolerable. As more Catholics left, the Church was forced to listen.

In the Republic, 84 percent -- down from 94 percent in the 1930s -- still identify as Catholic.

The North identifies as 48 percent Catholic but has no surveys tracking Mass attendance. Fr. Edward McGee doesn't see the North being "in crisis" like the Republic, possibly because there hasn't been an investigation into clerical abuse -- and with it, the public outrage -- as in the South. But the apathy among Catholics still presented enough of a challenge to know something had to be done.

Taking cues from churches in the U.S. -- the Archdiocese of Boston that underwent a similar reboot -- the "Living Church" initiative will commence in September 2013 in Down & Connor. Its main focus will be to create a more welcoming, inclusive Church, starting with more opportunities for parishioner involvement, says McKeown. The 32-year-old took a two-year sabbatical from her job as a speech pathologist to assist with the project.

"People were most interested in how to play a meaningful role in the Church and how to live out their baptismal call," said McKeown. "They want to feel that they're taking leadership."

Some parishoners might help the Church with media and communication strategies, for example, or join pastoral councils or get trained as youth leaders.

But there are limits as to how much they can participate, says Fr. McGee. Involvement won't include pushing certain Church boundaries, such as allowing married clergy or female priests.

Instead, McGee hopes re-energizing the laity will inspire more men to consider joining the priesthood.

"Vocations mirror the faith of the community," McGee said. "If you have faith that's vibrant and full of life, it will carry over."


Lay and clergy reformers in the Republic are more aggressive in their push for clerical change.

As coordinator and spokesperson for "We Are Church Ireland," Brendan Butler's view of lay participation concentrates on establishing equality between the clergy and the laity.

"We want a more democratic nature in the Church with participation of all people," he said. "Women are being denied equal rights."

Butler and his group consider the ordination of female priests, as well as allowing clergy to marry, to be top priorities.

Clergy in Ireland have also been outspoken on the topics of married priests and more female involvement, causing some to risk being silenced or threatened with excommunication by the Vatican.

Fr. Sean McDonagh is a founding member of the Catholic Association of Priests, an organization composed of nearly half of Ireland's 3,000 clergy who "seek reform based on Vatican II by empowering laity, empowering priests and not acting as a hierarchy."

"I'd like to have people see the Catholic Church committed to the poor, committed to the environment and empowering women," McDonagh said.

While Fr. McGee acknowledges married clergy could eventually be permitted, he is quick to note that female ordination wouldn't have the same chance.

"We have definitive teachings [including one on female ordination] that have an element of infallibility attached," said McGee. "But then there are some that are fallible and could undergo change, such as married clergy or the age of Confirmation."

Papal infallibility is a contentious topic, but Catholics in both parts of Ireland laud Pope Francis as a refreshing change. Archbishop Martin has expressed optimism that the pope "understands what is happening in Ireland."

Meanwhile, Butler still doubts that Francis will have much of an impact in Ireland.

"There's an awful lot that has to be undone, but no Pope will undo what another Pope has done. This infallibility thing is the worst curse on the Catholic Church," Butler said.


Besides revisiting Vatican II, both Irish laity and Catholic leaders describe the need for a Church in Ireland that is more representative of Jesus' teachings.

Fr. McDonagh looks to social justice as one way to renew the Church's mission, especially in attracting young Irish Catholics back.

"No diocese in Ireland that I know of has a commission of social justice, and every parish should have that," McDonagh said. "I'd much rather see people advocating for food security before going to Mass. Those are the issues Jesus would have been involved in."