Sunday 28 January 2024

The last priests and nuns in Ireland: Exploring the Irish Catholic Church’s steep decline (Contribution)

Father Gerard Quirke raises the chalice at Mass Rock overlooking Keem Bay on Ireland's Achill Island April 4, 2021. The church in Ireland is launching a Year for Vocations as it grapples with a steep decline in seminary numbers and with aging priests. (OSV News photo/Seán Molloy, courtesy Irish Catholic)

Irish state broadcaster, RTÉ, aired two documentaries in January looking at the decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland. 

“The Last Priests in Ireland” was hosted by the acclaimed comedian—and one of the stars of the iconic 1990s sitcom “Father Ted”—Ardal O’Hanlon, and “The Last Nuns in Ireland” was hosted by the award-winning journalist Dearbhail McDonald.

Both shows eschewed the easy path of gloating over the challenges facing the institutional church. 

Mr. O’Hanlon carefully reflects on his own ambiguous relationship with faith and his need for the liturgies of the church, even as he struggles to believe anything at all. 

And Ms. McDonald sensitively explores the remarkable achievements of Irish sisters without failing to acknowledge the abuse and neglect that often took place under their watch.

Half a century ago, there were more than 14,000 women religious in Ireland. Today that number stands closer to 4,000, with an average age that is over 80. New vocations are “vanishingly rare.”

In every interaction with priests, Mr. O’Hanlon’s show is warm and generous. Ms. McDonald particularly foregrounds the voices of the women religious themselves, and the program is more interesting for that. 

Reflecting on the debt she owes the Sisters of St. Clare, who ran the school she attended, she recalls, “They taught us to be critical thinkers, to be independent, and to interrogate and search for the truth wherever I went.” Her show also strikingly depicts the radical nature of contemplative life.

But the numbers tracked in both documentaries are stark. Half a century ago, there were more than 14,000 women religious in Ireland. 

Today that number stands closer to 4,000, with an average age that is over 80. 

New vocations are, in Ms. McDonald’s words, “vanishingly rare.”

The national seminary at Maynooth was once home to as many as 500 seminarians. Today there are just 20

Neither Ms. McDonald nor Mr. O’Hanlon conclude that the church in Ireland will actually die out. 

In fact, both shows give plenty of space for Christian leaders to articulate how they see the state of the contemporary church not so much as suffering a decline but a kind of “fulfillment,” experiencing a change in the seasons, a period of hibernation before a new spring for the Catholic Church in Ireland emerges at the right time.

But can you find signs of that new life in churches around Ireland today?  

Niall Leahy, S.J., is the parish priest of St. Francis Xavier parish in Dublin. The parish is in an economically and socially deprived neighborhood of Dublin’s north inner city. 

The community made the news internationally in November when riots broke out, blamed by Irish police on a “hooligan faction driven by far-right ideology,” following an attack on school children and their caregiver.

Irish culture may be rejecting institutional religion—with legitimate cause, considering the revelations of its many abuse scandals—but the Irish people still see the core of the Gospel as a good thing.

The new role of the priesthood in Ireland, according to Father Leahy, “will be forming missionary disciples.” 

According to this vision, which he finds invigorating, the parish priest shifts from acting as a service provider, someone who struggles to single handedly meet the spiritual and pastoral needs of his community, to the role of pastoral catalyst, someone who empowers Christians “to be ministers themselves.”

He already sees elements of this evolution become a practical part of parish life “in our Sunday evening young adult Mass, which is not just for young people, but by young people.” 

That renewed participation by young adults has not yet led to a return to the days in the 1950s when thousands of people would spill out of the church building onto Gardiner Street during Jesuit mission weeks. 

But, according to Father Leahy, there has been steady growth in participation since this ministry was launched. And more important than any numbers, what encourages Father Leahy is a sense that these young Catholics have agency in the life of their parish.

According to Father Leahy, when it seemed at its most powerful, “the church was over-sacramentalized.”

"The importance of receiving the Eucharist and showing up at public devotions was over emphasized at the expense of other elements of the Christian life,” he explains. The inner life of faith could be left entirely uncultivated. At one point in his documentary, Mr. O’Hanlon marvels that the church did not even encourage the faithful to read the Bible.

Now, it may seem as if the Irish church is much weaker. But those who are still involved are exceptionally active, Father Leahy says. The passivity of the old Irish Catholicism is gone.

“Cultural Catholicism will die out,” Niall Leahy, S.J., says, but he believes he already senses what might replace it on the horizon.

This is borne out in the experience of a new generation of Catholics coming into their own in today’s Ireland. Annie, who, like the other young people America spoke with, asked that her full name not be used to protect her privacy, is a young professional from rural Ireland who describes herself as a “practicing Catholic.” She does not assert that as a countercultural statement. It is just part of who she has become.

She was raised in a Mass-going family, and in adulthood she has embraced her faith as something of her own and something she treasures. She expresses it not only through sacramental observance but also through soup runs for Dublin’s homeless people and her participation in Bible study and spiritual book clubs. She is part of an intentional Christian community. She helps with the children’s ministry in her parish and leads the young adult ministry. It seems as if she sees faith as something that demands response in action that is woven seamlessly into her life.

As she sees it, Irish culture may be outwardly rejecting institutional religion—with legitimate cause, considering the revelations of its many abuse scandals—but that the Irish people still see the core of the Gospel as a good thing.

Many friends would very strongly say they are not religious, she explains, but “they would say they do believe in Jesus.” 

It is perhaps true that ordinary people who statistically are drifting from the church are not actually that far away—a sort of inverse of the “over-sacramentalized” dynamic that had typified the Irish church.

Annie believes that the many good works sponsored by the church might change its diminished standing in today’s Ireland. 

She would love to see the church think more seriously about connecting its grassroots initiatives together so that people can more easily find the good things that are happening all over the country: a web of different young adult ministries, a remarkable array of charitable organizations and arguably Irish society’s most far-reaching environmental activism. 

If she could get the ear of the bishops, she “would advise them to work really hard on promoting and linking up what they are already doing.”

The church needs to communicate “that there’s room for intelligent conversation and intelligent faith and that everyone is welcome on their own.”

There can be a gap between “what the church is, compared to what we think the church is,” Annie says. 

She believes that by clearly presenting what the church is actually doing, instead of allowing the conversation to always be about static positions the church is meant to be upholding, the church could strike up many more conversations with people who might initially think they have no need for faith.

Chris is a teacher outside of Dublin. He was “somewhat pleasantly surprised” by both shows and by a panel discussion that was aired directly after the first episode on the clergy vocation crisis. 

When he considers the decline in numbers of people committing to religious life, he also feels “it’s not the ending of something; it’s more transitioning to a new era.”

He sees Pope Francis’ commitment to the synodal way as central to this emerging new church, a return to a more communal understanding of the faith. 

Chris grants that these are controversial topics, and there are some young adults in the Irish church who are skeptical about this project. 

But he can see no way forward that is not in some sense a turn back to the vision of early Christian community found in the New Testament. He thinks forming people to better understand their faith will be the key demand in the years ahead.

They both see challenges facing the church, but neither believes a decline in religious vocations should be especially prioritized. 

Chris worries that the very serious religious commitment of some young Catholics means that there is a risk that individual communities and ministries will turn inwards, rejecting full catholicity to become more like an intense sect.

God may indeed be pushing the church to “face outwards and be pastoral and reach towards people who are not in the huddle.”

He explains that in their zeal, some lay communities can almost become a church within the church, in part because there is a tendency to cultivate a victim mentality based on hostility they discern in Irish media or the wider culture. 

They end up taking an “us and them” stance to the broader society and sometimes even to their fellow Catholics. “They’re almost a little bit judgy,” confesses Chris. “It’s not about getting into that holy huddle.”

He appreciated a scene in Mr. O’Hanlon’s documentary during which one young priest cited Pope Francis’ famous call that “the church must be a field hospital.” 

Annie and Chris sense that God may indeed be pushing the church to “face outwards and be pastoral and reach towards people who are not in the huddle.”

Longstanding disputes about the church’s positions on sexuality are also of particular concern. On a personal level, Annie and Chris say they have witnessed sensitive, nuanced, pastorally careful responses to Catholics who are not heterosexual.

But the church’s positions “on paper” are so stark, they say, that L.G.B.T. people often do not even come close enough to the church to experience the welcome they might find.

If nothing else, Annie says the church needs to communicate “that there’s room for intelligent conversation and intelligent faith and that everyone is welcome on their own.” But that is not a widely held perception.

The idea of a “faith that does justice” could also prove compelling to many. 

Annie envisions a church that allows lay people who share the church’s social vision to be able to host dialogues on those issues through the church, “rather than just going into empty churches where you don’t feel very welcome.”

Father Leahy sees the future of the church among the laity, a people striving to be missionary disciples. The stories that Annie and Chris tell are evidence that this is already beginning.

As one sister put it to Ms. McDonald: “We don’t have too few vocations; we had too many.” 

It is a stark assessment but one that likely resonates with many Irish Catholics. Had more attention been paid to testing the authenticity of vocations, the Irish church might have avoided its present diminishment.

We are not going to encounter the last priest or nun in Ireland any time soon. 

But even if the numbers of vocations stay low, with growing lay leadership, an unembarrassed willingness to evangelize and a commitment to holistic faith formation, the Irish church might be healthier now when it looks weak than it was when it looked strong.