Less than two years ago, St. Audeon’s Catholic Church was dying. It offered one sparsely attended weekly Mass in Latin and was on the brink of closure.
Now resurrected as the main home for Polish Catholicism in Ireland, the central Dublin church is one of the most dynamic in the country, providing 18 services a week, 11 of which are in Polish, and drawing up to 5,000 parishioners every Sunday.
The fate of St. Audeon’s illustrates how this country’s recent immigrant wave, roughly half of which is composed of Catholics, is helping to re-energize Ireland’s Roman Catholic Church, an institution that had been in steep decline, caused in part by a series of sex scandals involving priests over the past two decades.
Long among the poorest and most pious countries in Europe, Ireland is now one of the richest — and the level of religious devotion is trending toward the more defiantly secular continental model.
But due to the workforce demands of its thriving economy, Ireland has for the first time become a destination for large numbers of immigrants — the vast majority of them religious — from highly educated physicians to unskilled laborers. Most of Ireland’s newest Catholics come from Poland, Lithuania and the Philippines, with lesser numbers from Nigeria, Brazil and elsewhere.
“They’ve brought an enrichment to our culture, they’ve brought an enrichment to our economy and they’ve brought an enrichment to our church,” said Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin.
“Go out, for example, before Christmas to different carol services and the best singers are the Africans. The children are fantastic altogether,” Martin told Msnbc.com.
The Dublin archdiocese alone has 14 international chaplaincies. More than 100 towns and cities across Ireland now have Masses in Polish.
It’s not just the foreign parishioners that are having an impact. Non-Irish priests, too, are tending not just to their expatriate communities but to local Catholics as well.
“This is a very important place for them, the Polish people,” said the Rev. Jaroslaw Tomaszewski, a Polish priest at St. Audeon’s, built for local parishioners in the mid-19th century but which is now the official Polish chaplaincy in Ireland.
“We collect people here not only for religious ceremonies but for national feasts as well,” Tomaszewski said.
“I honor the old Irish tradition in Ireland. Tradition here in Ireland is really much longer than in my country,” he said.
St. Patrick is generally credited with introducing Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century, supposedly using a shamrock leaf to demonstrate the doctrine of the Trinity.
Though frequently suppressed during centuries of British rule, the Catholic Church gained a dominating role in society after independence in 1922, running virtually all of the elementary and secondary schools and infusing the state with its conservative ethos.
When Pope John Paul II visited Ireland for three days in 1979, an estimated 2.5 million of the country’s 3.5 million flocked to hear him speak.
But that visit turned out to be the high point for the Irish church.
It was rapidly followed by horror stories of abuse of boys and women by members of the Irish clergy — revelations that accelerated a decline in Irish church-going.
A 2006 survey by state broadcaster RTE found that 48 percent of Irish people attended Mass every week. That is still high by European standards, but far lower than the 81 percent who attended regularly in 1990.
New prosperity, new challenges
The new Irish prosperity has added to the challenges facing the church.
“We were reared in a Catholic society. It was a staunch Catholic society. Every family aspired to having a priest in a family. Now everyone wants a millionaire in the family,” lamented Pat Martin, a Dubliner in his 50s.
The clergy also is graying: The average age of Irish priests is 61.
“It means that we’ve got older priests being asked to do more work and that’s very demanding on them,” Archbishop Martin said.
Statistics published last month in The Irish Catholic newspaper revealed that 160 priests had died in the past year, chiefly due to old age, and only nine new priests were ordained. By way of comparison, 193 seminarians were ordained in Ireland in 1990.
If current trends continue, the total number of Catholic priests in Ireland — now at around 4,750 — is projected to drop to about 1,500 by 2028, according to the newspaper.
The shortage of priests is expected to be felt across Ireland, a country that once exported priests all over the world, especially to the United States.
For now, the church hierarchy looks unlikely to turn to foreign-born priests to minister permanently to Irish parishes.
“I believe that in general a church community should be able to generate its own priests,” Martin said. “My first emphasis at the moment is to see can we generate priests here from our own Irish community. It might be just too easy to stop and invite in others.”
The Catholic Church is also facing challenges of faith from the Protestant community, which is growing; Islam (there are now more than 30,000 Muslims in the country); and, for the first time in its history, Ireland has significant numbers of Eastern Orthodox believers.
As if to underscore the crisis, a former Catholic priest, the Rev. Dermot Dunne, in February became dean of the Protestant Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. While taking up his new position, Dunne symbolically kissed his wife on the front steps of the ornate cathedral.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Dalibor Renic, a Dublin-based Croatian priest who regularly offers Masses in English in addition to his monthly Croatian-language service, pointed out that the new traditions may help refresh the Irish church.
He said that for many years Irish Catholicism had been associated with a “strict” brand of spirituality, where “morality was emphasized very much … and the commandments … and the sin was everywhere.”
Their own national experiences give clergymen from former Communist countries such as Croatia, Poland or Lithuania something different to offer.
“For 50 years, we had Communists who preached about a paradise on Earth, so we also had to preach about paradise as well and less about hell,” Renic said.
It was “not just morality but also giving hope to the people and that face of faith that encourages people to resist in difficult situations and that gives them hope to look into the future,” he said.
Inside St. Audeon’s in Dublin, Tomaszewski was hopeful that foreign priests would help boost Irish Catholicism.
“I hope the influence of our people is good for the Irish society, for the Irish Catholic society,” Tomaszewski said.
“I am ready to serve to the (Irish) people here. I am ready to hear confessions,” he said.