These are trying times for the Catholic Church in Ireland. In 1979, the only previous time a pope visited, half the country – 2.5 million people – flocked to see him in person. More generally, 90 percent of Irish Catholics attended mass weekly.
This week, Pope Francis’s visit has been marked by fallout from abuse scandals, and only 30 percent of Irish Catholics attend mass weekly. The shift is stunning.
In many respects, the Irish Catholic Church is dealing with the same cultural head winds facing all organized religion in the West. Yet there is an added element. The Catholic Church in Ireland long held a position of even greater influence than the government itself. “The priests thought they were more powerful than the police, and they were right,” an Irish man told the Jesuit magazine America earlier this year.
During the past 40 years, Ireland has flourished, and its people’s horizons have broadened. Generations-old abuses and coverups, including the infamous Magdalene laundries, are jarringly out of step with a new optimism. Yet still, the reporter for America magazine noted, faith there resonates deeply – the inspiration of holiday services, the enduring affection for the parish priest.
And thought is stirring about how to build on that good. “We need a church that is relevant more than it is dominant,” the archbishop of Dublin told America magazine. “The Irish church has to change gear. And has to notice that the gear has changed.”
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