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Contemporary Catholicism in Ireland

ISBN13: 9781856076166

ISBN10: 1856076164


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  • This book, edited by academic Eamon Maher, Director of the National Centre fro Franco-Irish Studies, and former President of the National Priests Council of Ireland Fr John Littleton, gives an analysis by clergy, educators, journalists, and artists of what is happening to Irish Catholicism today and makes suggestions toward creating a credible and constructive future.
  • Eamon Maher

    Eamon Maher is Director of the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies at the Institute of Technology, Tallaght, Dublin. His publications concentrate in the main on various aspects of the Franco-Irish nexus and he is currently writing a book on the Catholic Novel.

    John Littleton

    John Littleton, a priest of the Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly, is Director of The Priory Institute, Tallaght, Dublin. He has a particular interest in relating the principles of organisational culture and development to changing Church structures. He is a weekly columnist with The Catholic Times.

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    What is the Current State of Irish Catholicism?

    1. Being a Catholic in Ireland Today - John Littleton
    2. The Catholic Church in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland - Peadar Kirby
    3. Embracing Change: The remodelling of Irish Catholic primary schools in the 21st century - Patricia Kiernan
    4. From Modernity to Ultramodernity: The Changing Influence of Catholic Practice on Political Practice in Ireland - Jean-Christophe Penet

    Catholic Experiences

    5. The New Prophets: Voices from the Margins - Catherine Maignant
    6. Reporting Religion - Colum Kenny
    7. Of Scribes and Pharisees - Patsy McGarry
    8. Devotion to Dissent: Irish-American Catholicism, 1945-2006 - Lawrence J. McCaffrey

    Artists, Poets and Writers on Irish Catholicism

    9. Sites of Worship, Sites of Desire: Catholicism and Dorothy Crosss Stabat Mater - Eóin Flannery
    10. Secularising the Sacred: Dermot Bolger and the Problem of Catholic Nationalism - Damien Shortt
    11. Sifting the Remains of Irish Catholicism: Relics and Nuns in Eil?®an N?¡ Chuillean?íins Poetry - Andrew J. Auge
    12. The Jesus Body, The Jesus Bones - John F. Deane
    13. Catholicism at a Crossroads: Jean Sulivans Message for post-Catholic Ireland - Eamon Maher

    The Contributors


    Readers might wonder what, if anything, there is to add to the edited volume Irish and Catholic? Towards an Understanding of Identity, published in 2006 (1). Many aspects of Irish Catholicism remain largely unchanged. The same downward spiral in relation to attendance at religious ceremonies has continued , although the arrival of a large immigrant Catholic population from countries like Poland has meant bigger congregations in particular parts of the country. The dearth of vocations to the priesthood has led to difficulties in running certain parishes due to an ageing clerical population, or to a simple lack of manpower. One of the most noticeable developments in recent times is the spread of an aggressive form of secularism that is intolerant of opinions that do not coincide with the widely embraced liberal agenda. In this regard, globalisation continues to exert a massive influence on what we perceive to be important in life. More often than not, material prosperity takes precedence over religious observance. As Tom Inglis observes:

    [...] The Irish [ ... ] have become the same as their Western counterparts in their immersion in the material world, their pursuit of pleasure, quest for excitement, fulfilment of desire, obsession with consuming and obsession with self. They have moved from being quiet, poor Catholic Church mice embodying a discourse and practice of piety and humility, to becoming busy, productive, self-indulgent rats searching for the next stimulation (2).

    The Irish have definitely changed, and not only in the area of their attitude to religion. We are more self-confident (some might say brash), prosperous, cosmopolitan, liberal than we were a few decades ago. We are certainly no longer quiet Catholic Church mice. One of the ways we used to acquire social capital was by being perceived to be good Catholics; it is now more likely to be determined by the type of property (or properties) we own, or by the car we drive, or our holiday destinations. There can be no denying that in the past the Catholic Church in Ireland exerted an undue influence on the affairs of state. It was also intrusive in its attempts to control the sexual lives and practices of its members. Similarly, a tiny minority of priests and religious abused their power and indulged in what were heinous crimes against innocent and vulnerable children. Nevertheless, the great work the Church did in the realms of education, health and culture is often conveniently forgotten. The strong social justice agenda of the Church has the potential to run contrary to the tide of consumerist values that have come centre stage since the advent of the Celtic Tiger. The very idea that anything other than market-force capitalism is good for the country is deemed blasphemous in the same way as sex outside of marriage was roundly denounced from the pulpit during the 1960s and 70s. Our embrace of modernity has brought in its wake a new form of intolerance towards those voices that are raised in dissent at the path on which we are embarked. Joe Cleary offers the following assessment:

    It must be acknowledged that the economic modernisation programme, and the attendant neo-liberalisation, Europeanisation and Americanisation (sometimes mistakenly termed globalisation) of Irish society have enjoyed considerable intellectual and popular support. The most audible opposition to this social agenda was a conservative Catholic backlash, which mobilised considerable opposition to various forms of social liberalisation , especially on divorce, sexuality and abortion , for a period in the eighties, only then to dramatically collapse in the nineties when the economic boom arrived to vindicate the modernisation programme, and a litany of highly publicised clerical sex and physical abuse scandals discredited the authority of the Catholic hierarchy that had earlier given a lead to such campaigns (3).

    The problems encountered by the Church were mirrored by those experienced by certain politicians who were found guilty of making unlawful gain from their insider knowledge and potential to influence the planning process. In the words of Eugene OBrien: The transcendentality of the Church and State could no longer be taken as a given. Instead, they, too, became part of a system of differences, and hence capable of interrogation (4). OBrien cites Ben Dunnes antics in a Florida hotel room as the beginning of a series of revelations concerning a number of our most senior politicians, including the Taoiseach of the day, Charles J. Haughey. A Tribunal was set up to investigate payments to politicians and revelations emanating from this source shook the very foundations of the State. Public outcry was directed against what had heretofore been the untouchables of Irish life: the Church hierarchy and politicians. The reaction to the Church was the more virulent, however, as the chance to get even with a once all-powerful institution was too tempting to resist for those who had in the past suffered at the hands of priests and religious. The anger persisted for a long time, and still persists today. But there comes a stage when it is important to reappraise our relationship with Catholicism. Because, for all its faults, the majority religion has always held a particular fascination for Irish men and women. As Tom Inglis observes: However, although Catholics may have become detached from the teachings and regulations of the Church as a guide as to how to live a moral life, being Catholic is still an endemic part of most peoples lives (5). The ways of being Catholic may have changed enormously, but the relationship is still an important one for many people.

    This collection of essays is an attempt therefore to tease out in a critical and detached manner the state of contemporary Catholicism in Ireland. Two thirds of the contributors are different from those who appeared in the Irish and Catholic? collection. Four are the same, although hopefully they explore new angles. The contributors include social scientists, educationalists, media experts, a priest, a poet, historians, cultural theorists and literary critics. Some relate personal histories in a moving manner and others the conclusions emanating from years of research. We hope that readers will find some food for thought, as well as some provocation, in the various chapters.

    We are grateful to the contributors for agreeing to be involved in the project and for being so professional in their dealings with the editors. We would also like to express our sincere appreciation of the support given by The Priory Institute and ITT Dublin, adjoining institutions in Tallaght, who enjoy a relationship based on mutual respect, synergy and collaboration.
    John Littleton and Eamon Maher




    All the Christian churches have in recent years being making a big push to spread the gospel. Certainly in the Catholic Church there has been a lot of talk about evangelisation. Dioceses and parishes have drawn up ambitious plans to let people know about our faith. Usually these have had little effect. We talk about love, freedom, happiness, and so on, but unless our churches are seen really to be places in which people are free and courageous, then why should anyone believe us? (1)

    The passage of time inevitably brings change, sometimes good and periodically bad, which could never have been anticipated. Such a transformation has occurred particularly in the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland during the past 50-60 years. In contrast, during the preceding centuries there was little significant variation in its status and conventions. Today the Catholic Church no longer benefits automatically from the privileged and powerful position it once occupied; and the dramatic and far-reaching changes experienced have serious implications for what it means to be a Catholic in Ireland during the opening decade of the twenty-first century.

    The context

    It is not an exaggeration to say that we now live in a global village. In many instances communication happens instantly. Travel is easier and more appealing (apart from the inconvenience of traffic gridlock in cities and stringent security at airports). Border restrictions between many countries are effectively disappearing, while pluralism and multi-culturalism characterise much of western society.

    However, there is also a negative aspect to this seemingly unstoppable progress. Peoples attitudes are now more individualistic, materialistic and consumerist. For example, most urban dwellers neither know nor care about their next-door neighbours; instead, they are preoccupied with their own plans and activities. Likewise, people are more often than not less interested in joining voluntary and charitable organisations because there is no perceived material advantage in doing so. This attitude is quite different from the old Irish custom of Meitheall (2).

    The fast-moving pace of change is most epitomised by the information technology sector. Almost as quickly as new products are launched on the market, they are classified as being already out-of-date - such is the speed of the technological advances in an increasingly sophisticated world. It is no wonder, then, that many people believe that this is the age of disposables where almost nothing has any enduring value. Transience is the order of the day and people wait impatiently for the next passing craze.

    This entire cultural shift has major implications for the Catholic Church where the pace of change has traditionally been measured in terms of decades if not centuries. The implications are well summarised by the question: What is the point of being a Catholic? This question is a modification of the title of Timothy Radcliffes recent book, What is the point of being a Christian? In the opening quotation of this chapter, above, Radcliffe comments rather startlingly on the growing irrelevance of the Christian churches, including the Catholic Church, to the lives of countless people. This surely has implications for being a Catholic in Ireland today.

    The Catholic Church in Ireland today

    The reality in twenty-first-century Ireland is that although the Roman Catholic Church is still the majority church, at least nominally, it does not exercise the unquestioned power and significant influence it had during the previous few centuries. Observers agree that, in the past, the terms Irish and Catholic were so compatible that they were almost synonymous in the sense that being Irish - with very few exceptions - also meant being Catholic (3). The two terms were used interchangeably. But that cannot be presumed anymore.

    The hierarchical Church has lost much of its power and credibility. Consequently, its moral authority has diminished greatly. There are several reasons for this, not least of which is the totally unprofessional and profoundly unchristian manner in which its leaders dealt with the dreadful revelations of child sexual abuse perpetrated by a few priests and religious who, having exploited the trust of parents, teachers and care-workers - but especially the trust of the victims themselves - destroyed the lives of so many innocent and vulnerable children. No one knows when, if ever, that trust will again be forthcoming. The revelations of sexual abuse by Church officials have horrified some Catholics so much that they have ceased practising their faith; and their outrage is understandable. However, in the interests of accuracy, it must be acknowledged that other people, who stopped going to church for no particular reason, sometimes use the child abuse scandals as a convenient excuse to justify decisions made independently of the scandals. This is unfair.

    But it would be a mistake to think that the decline in the influence of the Catholic Church is due entirely to the child sexual abuse scandals. In addition, Ireland, like so many Western countries, is becoming increasingly secular. Large numbers of people are not interested in organised religion because they can manage themselves and their activities without it. Therefore, they argue that religion - in any of its expressions - should not be given any recognition (4). Numerous people do not perceive a need for God, more than ever in the booming Celtic Tiger economy that has made such a vast difference to the Irish nations prosperity. For many people, religious practice has become redundant; it is merely a memory from the past. Yet it is amazing to observe how many non-practising Catholics visit churches to have their throats blessed on the Feast of Saint Blaise (3 February) and to receive the blessed ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent (5). Likewise, popular novenas to various saints (especially Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Saint Francis Xavier, Saint Martin de Porres and Saint Gerard Majella), Christmas Midnight Mass and the Good Friday ceremonies still attract relatively large congregations. It would be inaccurate to describe these anomalies as pure superstition; nevertheless, it is difficult to offer a coherent rationale for them.

    There is undoubtedly no shortage of negative images of the Catholic Church. According to many people, the hierarchical Church is out-of-touch with the reality of contemporary life, especially in the areas of sexual morality, the role of women, the rights of minority groups, and the lack of accountability and democratic structures at all levels. This has resulted in what are stereotypically described as lapsed Catholics (those who have abandoned the practice of the Catholic faith) and the so-called a-la-carte Catholics (those who choose whichever doctrines and moral guidelines suit themselves, while ignoring the remainder) (6). Again, it would be erroneous to assume that it is only teenagers and those in their twenties and thirties who forsake the practice of their faith; middle-aged and older people are doing it too (this is quite significant because it did not happen so much in the past). Then there are sizeable numbers of immigrants arriving in Ireland, not all of whom are Catholics and some of whom form significant ethnic minorities with their own particular social, religious and pastoral needs.

    When considering what it means to be a Catholic in Ireland today, there are several factors that merit particular deliberation. Among the most important are: (1) the disappearance of Catholic culture; (2) the demise of sacramental confession; (3) the crisis in vocations to the priesthood and religious life; and (4) the lack of effective Church leadership. Obviously, these factors do not have a critical impact on non-Catholics; but they are crucial for Catholics in terms of understanding and articulating what they believe about their faith and its ramifications for daily life.

    (1) The disappearance of Catholic culture

    The disappearance of Catholic culture is widely evidenced by a lack of awareness, among many Catholics, of what it means to profess Catholicism by participating in the Churchs sacramental life and other rituals, and by living in accordance with its ethical teachings. It relates to their inability to explain the central truths of their faith and their ignorance of basic Catholic customs and devotional practices.

    Examples of the absence of Catholic culture on the level of knowledge of the faith include doubts about the Churchs core teachings such as the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, the resurrection of the dead (including the resurrection of Jesus) and the existence of the afterlife. In similar vein, some Catholics, if asked, would not be convinced about the existence of God; also, they would argue that one religion is as good as another or that all religions are basically the same. Similarly, many Catholics under 30 years of age would not be able to say how many sacraments there are, much less name them.? While this may seem incredible to older, more traditional Catholics, various surveys indicate that increasing numbers of Catholics, especially those who are younger, are uninformed about the essentials of their faith (8). This, in turn, has serious consequences for the handing on of the faith. Even seminary training is introducing a propaedeutic year , an introductory year before formal studies begin - because of the rather impoverished levels of faith development in candidates presenting for priesthood.

    The primary responsibility for handing on the faith lies with parents; it is explicitly stated in the Catholic baptismal liturgy. But nowadays, younger parents frequently do not practise the faith or, if they do, have not been well-grounded in its fundamental teachings. Thus they are unwilling or unable to share confidently their faith experience with their children. Ironically, often it is grandparents who pass on the faith because it is they - mainly the grandmothers - who pray with their grandchildren and take them to visit Holy Gods house where they regularly light a candle. Regrettably, these activities are often the only elements of faith formation received by children before they commence formal schooling when the responsibility for faith formation is then unjustly transferred exclusively to teachers. This is wrong because, as catechists consistently argue, the faith is caught, not taught (9). In other words, it needs to be experienced by children with their parents in the home. Other educators in the faith, including schoolteachers and clergy, have a role that is rightly secondary to that of parents.

    Examples of the disappearance of Catholic culture on the level of customs and devotional practices include the lack of familiarity among many Catholics of what to say when they go to confession, and how to be reverent in church during liturgical celebrations. This is especially evident at funerals and weddings when it becomes immediately obvious that many people in the congregation are simply out of practice regarding the language and routine gestures used. Similarly, many couples preparing for marriage engage the hotel, photographer and florist ever before contacting the priest to reserve the church and discuss the religious aspects of their wedding. Also, parishioners generally do not inform the local priest that a member of their family is ill in hospital, and it is the undertaker who contacts the priest when someone has died. This is so different from the past, when the priest was contacted first - even before the doctor.

    What is urgently needed to restore a sense of Catholic culture is basic evangelisation (which is a logically prior step to a more thorough catechesis). The proof that evangelisation and catechesis were achieving their aims would be that people would not be embarrassed to mention the name of Jesus and that they would readily admit to having a personal relationship with him in their daily lives which is nurtured through prayer and the frequent celebration of the sacraments. Furthermore, their commitment to the teaching of Jesus and his Church would be evident in their Catholic lifestyles. Thus there would be an obvious link between liturgy and life; or, in the words of older people, people would be living the Mass.

    (2) The demise of sacramental confession

    The demise of sacramental confession has become one of the most noticeable traits of contemporary Catholicism. Whereas previously people went to confession regularly, for example, once every month or, in some cases, once every week, nowadays almost nobody goes to confession. A glance inside the confessionals in most Catholic churches reveals that they are increasingly used for storage purposes. Yet it could easily be argued convincingly that confession was never needed more than it is now.

    Undoubtedly confession, in the sense of sacramental confession, is no longer relevant for many people because there has been such a loss of the sense of sin, which in turn in due to a loss of the sense of the sacred (10). But confession - understood in terms of the psychological need to experience the fundamental truth that a trouble shared is a trouble halved - happens all the time. Observe, for instance, the vast numbers of people who attend counsellors and psychotherapists; that did not happen in the past. Nowadays, however, people almost boast about being in therapy. Notice too how, particularly in Ireland, talk-radio has become the norm; this did not happen by chance. There are nonstop live phone-in radio programmes and, remarkably, people reveal the most intimate details of their personal lives on national radio, often encouraged by the skilful interviewing techniques of the presenters whose main aim is to create sensational radio so that listenership figures will remain high and compete favourably with rival broadcasters."

    We all need people to listen to us (the Samaritans report that many people telephoning them say You are the first person who listened to me for so long) and offer us affirmation, encouragement, clarification or an objective alternative opinion. In the past, quite apart from the sacramental absolution that was given by the priest to the penitent in confession, the advice and counselling were also helpful. Now, instead of going to confession in the safety and confidentiality of the confessional, people are confessing their innermost thoughts, fears and fantasies publicly in a context that is frequently voyeuristic and unsympathetic. This cannot be wholesome.

    Finally, when the Sacrament of Reconciliation (another name for Confession or Penance) is celebrated using penitential services in churches several times every year (usually during Advent and Lent, or during a parish mission) many people think that they have not been to confession - despite having individually confessed their sins to a priest and received absolution - simply because they have not entered the confessional. Thus significant catechesis is required - both to encourage people to avail of the sacrament again and to help them understand that penitential services (where individual sacramental confession and absolution are included) constitute the Sacrament of Reconciliation just as much as going to confession in the confessional.

    (3) The crisis in vocations to the priesthood and religious life

    The general perception is that there is a crisis in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. However, the reality is not as it is often presented. For example, there are plenty of vocations to the priesthood and religious life in countries around the Catholic world where the Church is being persecuted or where the Church is new. Here in Ireland (and in other western European countries, Australia and America), there is undeniably a great shortage of vocations when comparisons are made with the early decades of the twentieth century. Here, too, the dramatic fall-off in vocations to the priesthood has resulted in all of the seminaries in Ireland, except the National Seminary in Maynooth, closing. Even in Maynooth, the total number of seminarians is now less than the number in each of the six or seven years of training in the past.

    Nonetheless, it could be argued that the current decline in vocations is not really a crisis. Perhaps the good old days were atypical , they certainly were when compared with the statistics over the Churchs long history. For much of the twentieth century, Ireland experienced an economic recession. Families had more children to rear then too. So having a son or daughter enter the priesthood or religious life solved some of the problems about the future of individual family members. Most of the clergy came predominantly from a middle-class, farming background when family status was measured, as is often said, in terms of having a (water) pump in the yard, a bull in the field and a son in the priesthood.

    How times have changed! Parishes are now being clustered , and some are being closed , due to the lack of available priests to service them. Likewise, the number of Masses is being reduced. But this can only be good. Hopefully, it will increase the quality of participation in liturgical celebrations and will also give lay people the opportunity to exercise their own legitimate ministry by virtue of being baptised. It must be remembered, too, that much of priests working time has traditionally been occupied by duties and tasks that are not essential to the nature of priesthood , for example, being involved in fundraising for parish properties and being chairpersons of schools boards of management.

    Giving lay people greater responsibilities in the Churchs mission and ministry will release priests to focus on their priestly work. Then the shortage of clergy may not be experienced in quite the same way. It must be remembered that vocations to the priesthood and religious life emerge from lay people; paradoxically, then, encouraging the laity to become more involved in the Churchs structures and ministry will invariably result in clerical and religious vocations. The real crisis is arguably a crisis of ideas rather than a crisis in vocations. Thus the situation regarding the crisis in vocations to the priesthood and religious life might well be expressed: What crisis? There is no crisis! That opinion is indeed provocative but, if given serious consideration, it might challenge all Catholics to reassess their attitudes towards the much-talked-about crisis in vocations.

    (4) The lack of effective Church leadership
    Most commentators today agree that a major flaw in the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland during recent decades has been its lack of effective leadership. Unfortunately, the bishops - both individually and collectively - have generally assumed that they alone must bear the burden of leadership, without sharing it with their priests and engaging meaningfully with the laity about how to deal properly with the various crises and pastoral needs.

    This was strikingly noticeable in how the bishops dealt with the victims and perpetrators of clerical sex abuse. There were serious systemic failures at all levels. This has resulted in a period of unprecedented crisis in the Church. The lack of transparency was inexcusable. The decisions to instigate formal legal processes in preference to suitable pastoral strategies, when dealing with abuse allegations, were unwise. Similarly, the unwillingness to communicate openly with the news media was counterproductive. In fact, the bishops would have been much better advised to learn from the incomparable expertise of parents (especially mothers) when devising appropriate procedures to ensure the safety of children.

    Furthermore, the relationship between priest and bishop (that, apart from his relationship with God, is meant to be the most important relationship in a priests life), which should be based on mutual respect, trust and obedience, has been seriously undermined by the manner in which some bishops have dealt with complaints and allegations against priests. Significantly, most parishioners now identify their local parish clergy as being linked with themselves rather than with the hierarchy. This is certainly a major change among Irish Catholics because it means that their frustration and anger over the revelations of child sexual abuse are clearly directed towards the bishops, not priests (other than priests who are abusers).

    But just as sexual abuse is symptomatic of the wider malaise of the abuse of power, the hierarchys inadequate responses to child protection issues are symptomatic of how it deals with many broader issues and concerns. More generally, there is no satisfactory means of dialogue between the bishops and other groups in the Irish Church that is mutually enhancing and life-giving. Journalists are mostly treated with suspicion and mistrust. A proactive approach to communications, media and public relations is not evident. It is often forgotten that the teaching Church is also the learning Church.

    While the Catholic Church is not a democracy, theologically speaking, nevertheless some elements of democracy could operate at all levels. The absence of democratic structures is particularly noticeable in the appointment of bishops, which is surrounded with secrecy. Bishops are the leaders of the local church; yet they are appointed centrally from Rome, often with very little meaningful communication at diocesan level.

    For example, it is somewhat ironic that priests who are appointed bishops are referred to as bishop elect between the public announcement of their appointments and their ordination /installation as bishop. Surely it would be more accurate and honest to refer to them as bishop designate. Also, in the sophisticated and complex world in which we live today, it is asking too much of any fallible human being to possess all the skills that are required for effective leadership. All the more reason, then, why much greater consultation is needed about the appointment of bishops. That is why more participation by greater numbers of people needs to be encouraged at all levels in the Church. Such involvement, if properly facilitated, would naturally lead to a synod-type approach to debate and discussion in the Church - and maybe towards a national assembly of the Catholic Church in Ireland which has been advocated by several groups (especially the National Conference of Priests of Ireland) for some time.

    The need for prophetic leadership in the Church
    Contrary to much popular opinion, prophets - at least in the biblical understanding of the term - do not foretell the future but speak out in the present context. Neither do they speak on their own authority. Throughout Judeo-Christian history, prophets have been first and foremost Gods spokespersons, literally people who speak for God; but prophets have also interceded with God on behalf of their people, thereby exercising a dual role in divine-human relationships. Thus the role of prophets has been, and continues to be, tremendously important and necessary in the lives of Gods people. Without prophets, and more particularly without people heeding their teaching, believers in God cannot be knowledgeable about the authentic meaning of Gods revelation (self-communication).

    In the Book of Deuteronomy, there are crucial lessons about prophecy in the words spoken by Moses. He said to the people: Your God will raise up for you a prophet like myself, from among yourselves, from your own brothers [and sisters] (Dent 18: 15). There Moses explained that prophets emerge from the ordinary people; they do not from the sky and, in general, they are not extra-special people. Indeed, they are reluctant people, doing what is necessary. This is significant becau

Contemporary Catholicism in Ireland