By Jasmynn Innis

GALWAY, Ireland – Scandal, pandemic and calls for greater inclusion have conspired to alter the relationship of many Irish to their faith and places of worship and to diminish church attendance across the board.

A visit to Galway revealed how churches and congregations are adapting to these shifts and evolving to remain relevant.

Rev. Alistair Doyle, deacon at Saint Nicholas’ Collegiate Church in Galway’s city center.

“Fifty years ago, before the advances in technology, the church community was much stronger,” said Rev. Alistair Doyle, a deacon at Saint Nicholas’ Collegiate Church in Galway, the largest medieval parish church in Ireland, according to its website. “For people of faith, everything – your whole social life, meeting your life partner – all of that has dissolved. And the church hasn’t helped itself. They shot themselves in the foot with child scandals, sex abuse and all of these things.”

Leaders of faith recognized that change needs to occur and that steps need to be taken to ensure that their places of worship and communities are inviting. They are aware of the series of scandals involving the Catholic church in Ireland, by far the most dominant faith tradition for Irish.

Galway Cathedral’s Peter Rabbitte. Photo by Andrew Downes.

“I suppose there are far more safeguards put in for one thing, more safeguards in regard to children and more vulnerable people in the church,” said Monsignor Peter Rabbitte of Galway Cathedral, a Catholic church and one of Galway’s most prominent landmarks. “More lay people are called to be involved in parishes and in the churches” for better accountability and transparency, as well, he said.

In February 2019, Pope Francis addressed what he described as the “sexual slavery” that nuns suffered at the hands of Catholic priests, and a wave of clerical sexual abuse revelations in 2018 roiled the Catholic church all over the world with its reports of thousands of cases of child molestation by members of the clergy.

As a result, from 1991 to 2016, those Irish who identified as Roman Catholic dropped by more than 13 percent, according to the 2016 Irish census.

In an age of technology, people have become more aware of the scandals, of sex abuse and trauma, and of the fact that these “sins” are being reported all over the world, not only in Ireland.

As a result, the Irish people’s respect for the church has suffered.

“Suddenly, the fear factor was gone, and the respect factor was gone to a certain degree,” said Declan Varley, group editor for the Galway Advertiser, one of Galway’s top newspapers. “The church’s stance on abortion and homosexuality, as well, didn’t do the church any favors in terms of being in tune with how the Irish society is actually evolving.”

String of scandals

In 1979, contraception, divorce, homosexuality and abortion were all still illegal in Ireland, indicating the dominant influence Ireland’s Catholic church had on the country’s social policies.

Since then, however, a series of scandals has fueled a social revolution in Ireland that has seen public opinion dramatically shift on these issues. Referenda on gay marriage, abortion and divorce have legalized all these once-forbidden practices. 

One of the first major scandals that engulfed the Catholic church specifically in Ireland occurred in 1992, when Eamonn Casey, the former bishop and prelate of Galway, resigned after his affair with an American woman had become public knowledge.

About 20 years after Casey’s resignation, Ireland’s Catholic church formally apologized for its administration of the Magdalene laundries in Ireland, asylums used from the 18th to late 20th centuries to hide Catholic women and girls pregnant out of wedlock. One year after the revelations surrounding Casey, the unmarked graves of more than 150 women were discovered on the grounds of one of the convent laundries. 

Declining attendance in general “is a really big challenge for the church to overcome,” Doyle said. “It’s starting at the beginning again.”

Doyle said the last 50 years in Ireland has seen fundamental changes in the relationship of the Irish to their faith.

“The secularization of society has meant that people have drifted further away,” he said. “Now there are young people that know nothing of the faith story. Before there was always a generational handing down of faith, but two generations have passed and there is no one to hand down the faith anymore.”

Built in 1965, Galway Cathedral sits on the site of what once was Galway’s jail.

Pandemic struggles

Faith leaders in Galway are also having to adapt to the aftermath of the pandemic. (See story on the church’s response to pandemic here.) Religious communities lost many members during pandemic. In a survey done by Iona Institute and Amárach Research in Ireland, 53 percent of pre-pandemic mass goers have not returned, while 23 percent reported having no intention of returning.

After two years of worship services having been suspended, people have lost the habit of going to church.

“People who were going to church once a week have found they don’t have to go to church once a week,” said Varley, who said he identifies as Catholic. “Now that the churches are open again, the numbers are way down.”

Faith leaders have noted that people seem to enjoy being able to watch the service from the comfort of their homes. It is less work for families. They don’t have to worry about getting the kids ready or keeping children engaged.

The interior of Galway Cathedral, which keeps its doors open to visitors all day, every day.

For many it seems, the pandemic put a proverbial fork in the habit of physically attending services, at least on a regular basis.

The future for faith and faith practice in Ireland and, specifically, in Galway is still unclear, but one thing that the people of Galway seem to agree on is that their city is a place known for its inclusivity and hospitality, no matter what one’s faith tradition happens to be. 

Diversity and inclusion

The rise of social media has brought with it a “callout culture,” and religious leaders are among those being called out and held accountable. Ireland’s youth are starting to ask hard questions, including questions regarding LGBTQIA+ communities, women’s health rights and gender representation in the church.

The Irish “want women, priests, and LGBT [representation],” said Patsy McGarry, religious affairs correspondent for The Irish Times, a leading national newspaper in Ireland. They want “more embracing over exclusion.”

Doyle said his church is working to make itself inviting to students in the hopes that once in a holy space, these students might begin asking questions of faith. He also said he wants his church to represent people of all backgrounds.

To appreciate how significant calls for inclusion might be is to appreciate Ireland’s past with respect to sectarianism. Protestant and Catholic churches are clustered together in Galway’s city center, some only a few hundred yards apart.

Fortunately, the Troubles, as sectarian strife has been known in Ireland, have only very rarely touched daily life in Galway.

Father Anthony Finn, parish priest at St. Augustine Parish.

Children in Galway during the 1970s and 1980s grew up hearing about the bombing and killings in Northern Ireland, “but it really never really came south of the border,” Varley said. “We didn’t have any evidence of it then. It always seemed further away than it actually was.”

Today, Varley said, “you won’t see any of that in Galway because Galway is a very open and inviting city. There isn’t any residue of sectarian bitterness really because it didn’t really come down to this area.”

Galwegian hospitality might be a big part of the answer to declining church attendance.

“Being present to the people, welcoming people no matter where they come from” will be crucial for the church, said Father Anthony Finn, parish priest at St. Augustine Catholic Church in Galway. “Pope Francis says you must reach out to people where they are. . . . You must walk with them.”

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