Church scandals, rapid secularization colour 1st papal visit to Ireland in nearly 40 years

In the 1960s, there were 600 Irish students in formation for the priesthood. Today, there are just 25. It is into this moment of profound decline for the Catholic Church in Ireland that Pope Francis arrives in a bid to shore up faith in a church repeatedly discredited by scandal.

The country's only remaining seminary is down to just 25 students

Pope Francis, right, is flanked by Irish President Michael D. Higgins, upon his arrival at the presidential residence in Dublin on Saturday. (Peter Morrison/Associated Press)

To be fair, fall classes hadn't yet begun at St. Patrick's College in Maynooth, home to Ireland's national seminary — the very last Catholic seminary on the Emerald Isle.

And it didn't help that the grey slate walls of the college about an hour outside of Dublin were matched by the grey skies above that would crack open to let loose a fresh spattering of rain.

But it did add to the sense of a grand but somehow hollow place; that whatever magic that might once have lived here is slipping away through arched corridors, no matter how carefully preserved.

In the 1960s, there were 600 students in formation for the priesthood. Today, there are just 25. 

It is into this moment of profound decline for the Catholic Church in Ireland that Pope Francis arrives in a bid to shore up faith in a church repeatedly discredited by scandal.

Father Tomas Surlis, the recently appointed rector of Ireland's national seminary, says the school has seen a dramatic decline in enrolment over the years. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"There are 450 stalls in the college chapel," said Father Tomas Surlis, the recently appointed rector of the seminary, with a wistful smile.   

"Are we going to fill those again? Not in my lifetime, I don't think."

Surlis doesn't deny the seminary could be forced to actually close its doors if things don't change.

"Yeah, absolutely. You know, there's no point in pussyfooting around that question. Of course, it's a real issue," he said.

"We can't deny that the process of secularization, for example, in Ireland and in Western Europe, has been rapid and it has been significant."

Changing times

Pope John Paul II visited the Maynooth seminary back in 1979, when he became the first pope to come to Ireland on an official visit.

He was greeted by a full throng of seminary students standing in those carved wooden stalls, clapping their hands and singing He's Got the Whole World In His Hands.

So anticipated was the Polish pope's arrival that the cockpit recording of the pilots was broadcast to the country live as they landed his plane.

Ireland had joined the European Union just a few years earlier, paving the way toward more rapid economic development, the Celtic Tiger on the horizon.

"We were on the cusp of leaving the past behind," Surlis said. "And [Pope John Paul II] talked to us about remembering our past. And not letting go of our faith."

A man sells Pope Francis souvenirs from a stall in Dublin on Friday. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

Pope Francis's visit to Ireland this weekend, nearly 40 years later, is a very different affair. Church attendance was around 70 per cent when Pope John Paul II was here. Today, it's estimated at around 30 per cent.

But about 500,000 people are expected to attend a final papal mass in Dublin's Phoenix Park on Sunday.

That gives some comfort to 24-year old seminary student John Gerard Acton.

Seminary student John Gerard says he's encouraged 500,000 people are expected to attend papal mass on Sunday in Dublin. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"When people say, 'Oh, your faith has gone,' or 'Catholic Ireland is gone' … like for [so many] to sign up for an event, it gives me great confidence. It encourages me greatly."

But he does acknowledge there is less room in Ireland for the church, and there will be "much less clergy in the years to come."

In recent years, Ireland's move away from Vatican directives has been profound, with two referendums delivering decisions to legalize same-sex marriage and to roll back a ban on abortions.

Ireland voted in favour of allowing same-sex marriage in a referendum in March 2015. Ireland became the first country in the world to adopt same-sex marriage by popular vote. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

But it is the bitterness and anger left by the church's many scandals — from child sex abuse to the treatment of unmarried pregnant women and children raised in church-run workhouses — that is ultimately colouring the visit of Pope Francis for many people here.

"All those poor little kids who were abused, we don't know the half of it," said Joan McAdam at a day centre for seniors attached to Our Lady of Lourdes Church in downtown Dublin.

The church was rather famously missed during John Paul II's visit when he reportedly ran out of time on his schedule and simply drove by in the popemobile without stopping.

Dublin's Joan McAdam says we likely 'don't know the half of it' when it comes to all the children who have been abused by the clergy. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

McAdam says Pope Francis needs to say to abuse survivors, once and for all: "I'm sorry for my church and I promise I will root it out, and yes, I will deal with them."

The Pope will reportedly meet in private with some survivors, but the Vatican is not saying at what point in his two-day schedule that will happen.

Abuse survivor Colm O'Gorman will lead a remembrance vigil on Sunday as a counter to the papal mass.

He says apologies and acknowledgement of church failings continue to avoid genuine accountability. The most recent being a 2,000 word letter expressing "sorrow and shame" over "atrocities perpetrated by consecrated persons," after a grand jury report in Pennsylvania revealed hundreds of priests had molested more than 1,000 children in the state since the 1940s.

Clergy abuse survivor Colm O'Gorman will lead a remembrance vigil on Sunday as a counter to the papal mass. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"This is about a systemic, wilful, deliberate process of coverup by intent, by purpose, by design, that was implemented and driven by the Vatican for many decades, underpinned by church law and church norms," O'Gorman said.

"Francis doesn't need to come to Ireland to make the institution of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican in particular accountable. He just needs to do it. He could have done it within moments of becoming Pope."


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.