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Catholic Church in Ireland Caught Between Tradition and Modernity

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The streets of Galway are adorned in festive spirit each holiday season, but for some, the time of year is becoming more secular. Image by Michael Bodley. Ireland, 2016.

In Ireland, where Catholic dioceses remain divided along 12th-century lines, a younger, more secular generation and the consequences of modernization have challenged the church’s hold on what was once considered the most Catholic country in the world.

There was the controversial school-aged sex education in the 1990s, propelled by the influence of the Internet and the economic boom still spoken of in veneration as the “Celtic Tiger.” There was the abuse of minors by priests, echoed elsewhere around the world. And there was the 2015 referendum on same sex marriage that carried a 62-percent majority in favor, and against the church’s teachings.

This is the same country that legalized divorce a mere two decades ago, in 1995. Change comes slowly.

As the number of churchgoers plummeted–from nearly 90 percent in 1984 to less than an estimated 18 percent in 2011–the Catholic Church has been caught between the importance of tradition and meeting the needs of a younger generation of the faithful, according to Father Diarmuid Hogan, head of Oranmore Parish, in the western part of the country.

“It’s something that’s hard for an outsider to quite understand, how the Church and politics and who people are—how they became this way—are all hard to separate,” Hogan said.

In the middle of a distinctly Irish rain, cold and clammy, Hogan meandered through a graveyard located outside of Galway. The middle-aged priest, who has a knack, as many of the Irish do, for speaking in sentences that sound more like poetry, stopped his car, threw on the parking brake and touched one hand to a temple whenever something really sparked his interest.

“Outsiders will come in, carrying what they see as obvious, you know, answers, and they have no idea what they’re in for,” Hogan said. “In Ireland, sometimes, you wait for change to come to you.”

As many are, he’s concerned about the way forward for the Catholic Church. He doesn’t have all the answers, from how to bring back younger people to how to give people a reason to show up for something more than Easter and Christmas. The nonreligious in Ireland have grown to 269,800, from 186,300 in 2006, a 45 percent increase.

An aging priesthood has caused problems all its own for the church, too.

Over one decade alone, from 2002 to 2012, the number of diocesan priests in Ireland dropped from 3,203 to 2,800.

It’s led some groups, such as the Association for Catholic Priests, to call for something more drastic: allowing women to become priests. But there’s still ample resistance in a place where tradition is everything, and change tends to be slow—sometimes taking literal centuries.

Among the faithful, though, there is still a sacred veneration for the latest to join the ranks of the priesthood. Ordinations from Galway to Cork are community affairs, with packed cathedral and over-flowing village church alike turning out to see their newest leaders in the faith.

In Galway, a January ordination of two priests gridlocked the parking lot, as stick-shifting drivers gave up on parking spaces and blocked themselves in. There was no rush to run out after, as parishioner and visitor alike stayed to mingle with the two young men, curious and grateful as to their lifelong commitment to the Church.

The mayor of Galway sat up front, and his constituents lined row after row of pew, decked out in their Sunday best. Under an imposing marble sloping ceiling, lights illuminated the faithful below. The heads of hair were dominated by shades of grays and whites. The generation that grew up surrounded by the Church still makes up a majority of churchgoers in many parts of Ireland, with many youth somewhere else, somewhere secular.

No rock music played, and no choirs sang. This was not a church of change, but a place steeped in history. Organs carried the tune, and crying babies were swiftly whisked outside. Jeans and sweatshirts were few and far between.

In a call to the two priests-to-be, Bishop Martin Drennan spoke in a careful clip that encouraged the two young men, while alluding to difficulties he expects them to face in the years to come.

“Every diocese has difficult appointments that demand courage and immense patience,” Drennan said, in an ordination homily. “The needs we have to be successful, to be liked, to avoid criticism, to be noticed, are often not met.”

It’s a hard reality for priests all over the Emerald Isle: the expectations and the job description haven’t much changed in centuries, but the responsibilities sure have. All over, priests have to put in longer hours and travel more miles, put up more prayers in less time, preside over more masses than ever before.

It can be tiring.

On the way back from the graveyard, Hogan got a phone call, one he’d been expecting for some time. Weeks earlier, a local student had gone missing. In the winter, in Galway, that often means one thing: another drowned in the cold waters of the River Corrib, which cuts through town.

“Am I needed? Do they want a priest?” Hogan asked the caller, the first question that comes to mind for the priest for whom death is nothing new.

He was. And he went.

Hogan and others believe there will always be a place for Catholicism in Ireland. They’re just not sure what that might look like, five, 10 or 20 years from now.

At the ordination, Michael Armstrong, 21, saw his future self in the ordained: he’s studying at seminary, to one day become a priest.

“Everyone is looking for something deeper in their lives,” Armstrong said, as his proud father, Martin, a construction worker by trade, looked on. “But young people feel this secular thing, this peer pressure thing. That it’s not cool to be a priest, anymore.”

An international 2012 poll, one of the largest of its kind, with more than 50,000 respondents, found that Ireland is losing its religion faster than almost every other country of 57 surveyed. While 59 percent of the world described themselves as a “religious person,” only 47 percent of Irelanders did, at the time.

A realist, Armstrong said his faith is strong both in God and the Church itself, but he knows things will be different. In the future, Armstrong sees a smaller church led by fewer priests. It’s a difficult ask, how to win over more young people like him, he said, but he does have some idea.

“You just have to be honest with people, not hide behind religious fronts,” he said. “People see if you’re being hypocritical—they can feel that. You need to be authentic.”