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Last Updated: Friday, 18 May 2007, 06:21 GMT 07:21 UK
Immigrants re-energise Irish Church
In the run-up to the Irish general election on 24 May the BBC News website is looking at some key issues affecting modern Ireland. Here, Cathy Grieve explores how the Catholic Church in Ireland has a new saviour: the immigrant.

Congregation at Polish mass
Polish immigrants pack into the weekly service in their language
On a Sunday evening at St Augustine's Catholic Church in Cork city centre there is standing room only - and it is a cavernous building.

The choir has been practising for the last hour. Melodic, loud, sincere religious songs ring out.

At the back of the church there is a long queue, snaking up one of the side aisles. A little red light above a confessional door indicates that forgiveness is on offer.

The young, mostly male Polish worshippers wait their turn, patiently. Filing in one by one to confess their sins and take their penance, young men and women are breathing new life into one of Ireland's oldest traditional institutions, the Catholic Church.

Father Pat Moran is the Pryor at St Augustine's and has been a priest for more than 37 years. He is excited by the new interest in the Church.

"This is a new period of growth, the Poles here are totally responsible for this. It is infectious and re-energising for me too."


Fr Moran says the new congregation has also introduced some competition. "The Polish choir introduced new ways of doing things, like using radio microphones made in Poland.

Congregation at Polish mass

"Our choir is now slowly adapting to the new ways and the two are sharing resources," he said.

The Polish mass lasts 90 minutes and many of the faithful remain afterwards for a separate service remembering the late Pope John Paul II.

It is reminiscent of an Irish Catholic Church of 20 years ago. Vibrant, busy, dedicated.

The Bishop of Cork and Ross, John Buckley, drops into the service to greet this new congregation and to urge them to support Cork in upcoming sporting events.

He readily accepts that the immigrant community is a lifeline for the Church, with many Irish Catholics having left following a difficult period of public scandals.

"We have had problems in the Church, but we have dealt with them, unlike secular society," he told the BBC News website.

"I believe Irish people still have an affiliation with their Catholic faith. The Sunday obligation to attend mass may no longer be relevant in people's lives, but on the big occasions like weddings, funerals, baptisms, the faith is still there and evident."

Father Piotr Galus
The church's clergy hope to see more Irish people attending
Bishop Buckley catches up with the local Polish priest, Fr Piotr Galus, in the sacristy after mass. They discuss the most recent pre-marriage course, conducted in Polish, which is now also a regular addition to the church.

"I had almost 200 people attending, a lot of Polish, Romanian and other Eastern Europeans, but they were here with their Irish partners. It is funny to see Irish Catholics doing a course through Polish and having it translated back to English for them," Fr Piotr explained.

Bishop Buckley hopes the immigrants will bring their new Irish families back to the church.

Irish parishioner Neil Kelleher regularly attends the Polish services and enjoys the lyrical and artistic efforts of the congregation.

"The Polish are now as we, the Irish, were in the 1960s. There is great motivation amongst the Polish people here and great involvement," he said.

"I can also see integration happening - the Polish attending the English-language masses and the English speakers attending the Polish masses."

New role

But this new-found enthusiasm has still to be translated into more Irish Catholics returning to their church in an active way.

Young boy at Polish mass
The invitation has been extended to young and old
The 2006 census revealed that 3.4 million Irish people declare themselves Catholic, out of a total population of 4.2 million.

Clearly there is still a need for Irish Catholics to keep their label, acknowledge their membership, belong to this traditional institution, but not the same need to actively take part or to take heed.

The Catholic Church may once have been all-powerful, setting the moral and political agenda for a willingly obliging society.

But that is no longer the case. Citizens of modern Ireland still maintain their membership, but it is more of an a la carte approach to the faith.

The immigrant Catholics may have given the Church a life-saving transfusion, but the really big challenge for the Catholic Church here now is making itself relevant in a modern, independent and free-thinking Ireland.


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An earlier version of this article contained an error of fact. It quoted the 2006 census as revealing that 3.68 million people declared themselves Catholic, out of a total population of 4.6 million. That should have read 3.4 million declared Catholics out of a total population of 4.2 million

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