The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pope Francis is set to visit an Ireland where the Catholic Church is in steep decline

Visitors attend Mass in the chapel at Knock Shrine in County Mayo, Ireland, last week. (James Forde/for The Washington Post)

KNOCK, Ireland — The pilgrims still come, many on foot. The faithful still fill their plastic jugs with the healing holy water. The sick are anointed with oil. And by the thousands, they reach out to rub their rosary beads on the stone wall of the old chapel, where an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared one stormy twilight in 1879, witnessed by 15 respectable residents of the village.

Next Sunday, during a two-day visit to the country, Pope Francis will make his own pilgrimage to the Basilica Shrine of Our Lady of Knock, Queen of Ireland. He will see a modern-day complex with new youth and counseling centers, a museum and a hotel, surrounded by acres of manicured lawn, everything wired with fiber optics, WiFi and high-end acoustics for 21st-century supplicants.

But Knock Shrine today is an island of faith in a sea of troubles for the Catholic Church in Ireland, which has seen its flock flee in droves and the authority of its once all-powerful clergy shaken — first as the country’s courts and legislature overturned bans on contraception, homosexuality and divorce and, more recently, in two stunning referendums. 

In 2015, Ireland became the world’s first country to approve same-sex marriage by popular ballot. In May, it swept aside one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the developed world in a landslide vote that marked its full emergence as a socially liberal state no longer obedient to Catholic dictates.

Those two votes “illustrate how rapid Irish secularization has been — it has achieved in one generation what took centuries elsewhere,” said Crawford Gribben, professor of history at Queen’s University Belfast. 

In tandem with such dramatic social change, church attendance has withered. You can feel it on a Sunday morning in parishes across the country, where elderly priests presiding over rows of dusty pews distribute the Eucharist with shaky hands to a trickle of pensioners. 

Once the most Catholic country in Europe, Ireland is now a place where only about a third of adults attend church weekly, according to surveys.

Irish Catholics have also been rattled by the explosive news from the United States, where a grand jury last week reported that hundreds of priest sexually abused 1,000 children in Pennsylvania.

More than 300 accused priests listed in Pennsylvania report on Catholic Church sex abuse

“You could say the church is at rock bottom,” said Richard Gibbons, the parish priest and rector of Knock Shrine.

The sex abuse scandals “diminished our moral authority,” he said. “There was the reaction against the dominance we once had in Irish society.” 

The shrine could bring back those who have wandered away, Gibbons said, “but we have to meet them where they are.” 

No judgment, the priest said. Just open hearts. “If you haven’t been to confession in forever? Come and give us a try. We are here to help.”

Gibbons said the 45,000 tickets to see Pope Francis at Knock Shrine this month were snapped up in a few hours, which he takes as a sign of resilient fervor.

Yet for Pope John Paul II’s visit here in 1979, a high-water mark for the church, 450,000 came to hear the pontiff speak. News photographs from that event show multitudes of worshipers stretching to the horizon under blustery skies, like a Catholic Woodstock.

Those days are gone. The Irish today speak openly about the death of the church, the end of the church or, more optimistically, the search for a new, “a la carte” model, where people pick and choose how they will live their faith, accepting or rejecting church teaching without fear of consequences.

In the latest census in 2016, 78 percent of Irish declared themselves Catholic, down from 93 percent just three decades earlier.

While that is still a hefty majority, the signs of religious decline are everywhere. Young Catholics express indifference, and their parents voice shame at the church’s many sins, especially the decades of child abuse here and the coverups by the Irish church, supported by the Vatican.

Ireland was praised by a past pope in 1961 as the most fruitful producer of Catholic priests, who were sent to serve around the world, especially to the United States, but today the ranks are rapidly thinning.

Last year, just six young men entered the national seminary at St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth to study for the priesthood, “believed to be the lowest number since its foundation in 1795,” according to the Irish Times. 

The average age of a Catholic priest in Ireland today is 70, as the rectories begin to resemble retirement homes.

The shrine at Knock, in County Mayo, represents attempts to graft new ways onto the roots of the old Irish Catholicism. 

Its multimedia museum, which fully endorses the miracle of the apparition of 1879, explains that it transpired at a time of extreme social stress in Ireland. There was a spike in rents charged by British landowners, a surge in evictions, three years of crop failures, crushing poverty and widespread fear of another famine. The displays note contemporaneous suspicions that the apparition was a mass delusion or a hoax.

“You don’t have to believe in the apparition to find peace and comfort at Knock,” said the museum’s curator, Grace Mulqueen. “I love to meet the skeptical people.”

But most who come do believe the story of Mary Byrne, who passed by the village chapel that rainy dusk and was the first to see the apparition, which she said was of heavenly lights, figures and forms alongside an altar, a cross and a lamb.

Byrne ran to bring others to witness the sight. In all, 15 locals gave testimony to a church inquiry, which judged their stories credible, forthright and heartfelt.

Byrne’s written testimony records her memories of what she saw: “the Virgin stood erect with eyes raised to heaven. . . . She wore a crown on her head.” There was John the Baptist, too, and St. Joseph and angels. But she heard no words.

This week, Knock Shrine was packed with visitors attending this season’s candlelit processions and Novena Masses.

Claire Madden was there. She’s come to the shrine, she guessed, more than 50 times. “I believe the Virgin Mary appeared here,” Madden said. “I can feel it. I have a strong faith.” 

She prayed that her daughter Grainne would survive a brain tumor — and her daughter did survive.

But Madden was angry at her church. She blamed the changing times, yes, but sex abuse scandals were horrific. Now, even here at Knock, with its million-plus visitors a year, you can see the decline, she said.

“Take a look around you! All old ladies with blue rinse hair and their rosary beads. Where are the men?” 

Madden said the church leaders “lost the young, and they’re never coming back.” She added: “They brought it on themselves. They were so high and mighty, the priests. But they had their secrets.”

Why the Vatican continues to struggle with sex abuse scandals

The string of abuse scandals that have disgraced the church in Ireland — as in the United States, Australia and elsewhere — began to be revealed in the 1990s, with clergy credibly accused of engaging in consensual gay sex, breaking vows of celibacy, fathering children, and molesting and raping children and adults.

Worse perhaps, the scandals revealed how the Irish church, supported by the Vatican, actively covered up the crimes, protected perpetrators and ignored victims.

In 2011, Ireland’s then-prime minister, Enda Kenny, condemned “the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism [and] narcissism” that he said dominated the culture of the Vatican. “The rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed,’ to uphold instead the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and ‘reputation,’ ” he said.

When Francis celebrates Mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park next Sunday, after his pilgrimage to Knock, victims of church abuse will be gathering at the city’s Garden of Remembrance.

One of the event organizers is Colm O’Gorman, the executive director of Amnesty International in Dublin, who has spoken publicly about the sexual abuse inflicted on him as a child by a priest.

Irish Catholics want to hear Francis speak about the role the Catholic Church played in the abuse scandals, O’Gorman said. They want Francis to apologize, meet with victims and promise the church will do better. 

“The first part of getting to grips with any trauma or any major failing is to acknowledge the truth of it. How do you move on if the simple fact is ignored?” he said. “Regret and sorrow is a human response. It's not an acknowledgment and an apology.”

Ferguson reported from Belfast.

In Ireland, blasphemy can cost you $30,000. A referendum could change that.

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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