At Mass in St Matthew's church in Ballyfermot, Dublin, Fr Joe McDonald is criticising homophobia within the church. He jokes about people who have asked why he hasn't been "sanctioned", and he points them towards the church of Vatican II and the church of Jesus. These values are there, he says. He leans against the dais casually as he speaks, and his voice goes from quiet to loud in his Falls Road accent.
The low-lying 1970s church is around three-quarters full, largely of people over 50, although there are a few young families, some from the local Kerala Indian community. In the doorway a noticeboard advertises pilgrimages to Lourdes and Knock, and a concert in aid of the Peter McVerry Trust. There are also stacks of Fr Joe's newsletter Rumblings from the Bunker. It is the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
After Mass he greets people at the door of the church. An older man gently chides him for reading too quickly during parts of the service. A younger man tells him about his crucifix tattoo – Father Joe mentioned a project collating examples of religious body art – and makes as though to remove his shirt. Father Joe laughs. “You don’t have to show me!”
He tells me about holy contemplation which he loves (“a divine waste of time”). He talks about his boxer dog. He talks about lack of accountability in the church, and how Mary McAleese frightens “old male crusty celibates” .
A former Christian Brother who became a priest in later life after a bereavement and crisis of faith, Fr Joe has written a book called Why the Irish Church Deserves to Die, and he revels in theological discussion with his parishioners.
Some people come to his house every day for “a bowl of soup, a prayer, a medal, a blessing, a chat… People around here have suffered extraordinary. I mean, they are exceptional people. If you look at the beatification and canonisation of characters like Matt Talbot or Edmund Rice… one of the things the church examines is ‘did they display heroic virtue?’ I see heroic virtue here every day. They’ll never be beatified or canonised.
“A woman with 14 children who’s buried half of them, a man and woman in their 70s rearing their grandchildren because their parents are dead – that’s heroic virtue.”
Moya Doyle, the parish secretary or, as she describes it, “parish gopher”, introduces me to some parishioners who “have been excommunicated”. She’s joking. Yvonne Foster, who is 60 and a founding member of the folk group, now goes to Mass three times a week and relishes the sense of community it brings her. “You go inside here and have a cup of tea and a bit of a yap. There’s a good bit of craic afterwards, and I met people I wouldn’t have met.”
Fr Joe, for the record, does sermons that are just as expansive on weekdays. “I’m not behind the door saying it to him,” says Yvonne, miming tapping her watch.
What’s her favourite bit of Mass?
“Receiving holy communion.”
"I envy that," says 46-year-old Tara Fulham, who lapsed for years and is only recently regaining a faith. "I was a teenager when the scandals started to hit, and I remember the first one was Bishop Eamonn Casey and our parish priest stood up and roared at us all not to read the papers... I remember thinking 'you can't treat people like this. We need to be able to talk about it'."
She came back to the church after witnessing the kind way Fr Joe ministered to her father-in-law at the end of his life. “We talked about it at home, and it wasn’t a very deep conversation, just ‘will we go back?’”
Now she loves having 45 minutes a week when the kids don’t have their heads in a screen. She laughs. “I have to be honest, if I come in on a Sunday and it’s not Fr Joe I go ‘oh God, I wonder what this fella will be like’.”
Her faith isn’t a fixed thing, she says. “I often wondering am I praying the right way. I yap away as if it’s a friend, ‘How are you keeping’?”
Michael O’Flanagan, a student at King’s Inns, is an unusually young Mass-goer at 25. “My friends do think it’s unusual,” he says. He didn’t go as a child, though his family did have religious faith. So what brought him here?
“Father Joe is a big factor... He doesn’t come across as doctrinal or judgmental. It’s interesting and relevant, and he relates everyday issues back to the gospel.”
Declan Graham, who helps with the church’s finances (“I drive a 10-year-old car in case anyone was asking”), had a “road to Emmaus moment when teaching fellows to drive buses for Dublin Bus…One of them was an African Christian, one of them was an African Muslim, and one of them was an East European Christian – and two of them started talking about St Peter,… and the next thing the three of them had this in-depth conversation, quite sensible, quite logical, really in-depth about faith and what they believed and what the bible said, and I thought ‘wait a minute, Irish Catholics are meant to be the best in the world, and I don’t know what they’re talking about…I really need to look at this’.”
He took a night class in theology, and found himself reconnecting to Catholicism in a completely different way. “I don’t take everything the church says as 100 per cent Gospel,” he says.
Are Catholics allowed draw their own conclusions on theology? “You have your faith, but you can question things and critique things, and I think Father Joe encourages that,” says Michael.
“He’s the type of man you can go up to and say, ‘for God’s sake, what were you talking about there’?” says Tara.
“You can make your own mind on things,” says Declan a little later. “You can vote ‘yes’ on the abortion referendum. Why? Because you can talk to God about it and make up your own mind.”
But the congregation is dwindling.
"I don't see my peer group here," says Tara. "And if there's a wedding it's like the Muppet Show, people standing up, sitting down, nobody knows what to do… I talk to my friends and say 'at those moments of crisis what do you think happens? What do you believe happens when we go'?"
What does she believe? “I couldn’t fathom that there’s nothing beyond, that when we go we go…There has to be something more.”
“Nobody has ever come back, but my mother used to say ‘maybe they liked it so much they didn’t want to leave’,” says Declan and he laughs. “I don’t think about it too much. I would like to hope there is something there. A friend of ours in California said, ‘I’m not going to heaven if there are no dogs’ and then the priest said ‘animals have no souls, so they can’t go to heaven’.”
“Oh Jesus,” says Tara and they laugh.
“That made me think,” says Declan, “that maybe heaven is different for everyone… Or else I will be turned around completely and I’ll love everything.”
Was their faith shaken by the church’s covering up of child abuse?
"My generation were at the cusp of the scandals," says Tara (later she talks with tangible anger about Brendan Smyth and Sean Fortune). "I believe if they'd stood up at the get-go and put hand on heart and acknowledged what had happened people would have gone 'fair enough'. We stand up for ourselves a lot more now… I'm not disrespectful to priests, but I would certainly challenge and I wouldn't sit there as someone wagged their finger at me."
She starts speaking about the pope’s visit. “Two things I really want: one is that he gives hope to people, and the second is that he acknowledges this and says it happened. I can’t for the life of me understand why there’s this time delay all the time.”
Are they going to see the Pope?
“I haven’t made up my mind,” says Michael. “I do have a lot of issues with the institutional church, and the pope represents the institutional church. Someone said to me, ‘well you should become a Protestant then’.” They all laugh.
“It will bring a lot of joy to a lot of people, but there needs to be an acknowledgement and a reconciliation. We’re past the stage of ‘Young People of Ireland I love you’. When you think about those words now, it’s quite eerie.”
“What did he know when he said that?” wonders Tara, a little later.
They’re all very aware of reforms being attempted by the current pope. Tara is going to the Phoenix Park, and she is hopeful about him. “I’m sure he’s not exactly looking for family income support supplement, but he doesn’t exude a vulgarity we associate with the Vatican [which] seems so removed from poverty and life and sadness.”
Yvonne tells a story. Several years ago due to diabetes she had to have some toes amputated, and a few years later they said they needed to take the whole leg. She attended a healing Mass in St Matthew’s and she didn’t lose her leg. She believes these things are connected. “When I tell my family they laugh at me,” she says.
“You know what you’re after doing?” says Declan affectionately. “You’re setting Joe up for sainthood… I’m going to ask him if I can have one of his gloves.”
At the 19th century stone church of St John the Baptist in Killeagh in east Cork I meet a woman lighting a candle for her local GAA team. "I like the church when it's quiet because there's a peace in it for me. I believe in something but not necessarily following the Catholic traditions. [I come] between Masses."
Why doesn’t she go to Mass?
“It just didn’t feel right for me anymore. I’ve had a lot of grief in my life… my parents, my brother, my partner. I have to believe that they’re not gone. I can connect with them in some place like this. I talk to them.”
Fr Tim Hazelwood recalls coming to Dublin for the pope’s visit in 1979 as a seminarian. “A Dublin guy was standing when we got off the buses. He said, ‘Jaysus, look at all the penguins’.”
He doesn’t wear a collar now. “I always felt that the uniform in some cases made a barrier with people.”
He has studied counselling and sees his role as a pastoral one, helping parishioners develop a personal relationship with Jesus and to assist in hard times if necessary. “People are a lot better educated now, and the herd mentality is gone. I think it’s a good thing. People don’t come out of duty.”
He is also very involved in the Association of Catholic Priests where, with UCD psychology professor Marie Keenan, they’ve devised “a healing circle” to help priests deal with the negativity that surrounds the church now. Fr Tim himself was falsely accused of abuse a few years ago (he was completely exonerated) “We’re trying to help guys who feel isolated and lost,” he says.
It’s the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time and the church is half full. Fr Tim’s sermon is about a child finding a free banquet, a parable about Jesus’s generous accessibility. The Prayers of the faithful include one about being kind on social media and one about not allowing church misdeeds to obscure good works. The music is beautiful – the choir will be among those performing for the pope in the Phoenix Park – and it earns a round of applause.
At the end Fr Tim makes a few announcements. They include news of a fundraising concert for the parish hall and the news that an Irish Times journalist is in the congregation. "He's the good-looking fella with the beard… Maybe not say too much," he says, but he's clearly joking.
After Mass, in the left transept of the church 10 women are sitting. They are regular Mass-goers, many in the choir. “I suppose its food for the soul every week,” explains Anne Fitzgerald.
“What I’d say is if something happens to you in the morning and you’re diagnosed with something and someone says would you say a prayer for me,” says Janice Buckley, “I’d think there’s no point in asking God for help if he doesn’t know who you are.”
“It’s not the majority religion in South Africa,” says 37-year-old blow-in Jenni Appadoo. “A judgmental church wasn’t my experience… it’s been more about my connection to God.”
Why did she come here?
“We came here and heard the music...Wherever you go in the world there’s going to be a church. That’s going to be an entry into a community. What you make of it is going to be up to you as person...This church is extremely inviting.”
Maura O’Shea interjects at one point to note that not everyone there is hugely religious. “I came here because of the music,” she says, “but I said to someone lately, and I don’t mean this in a disrespectful way: ‘I think I wouldn’t mind being there now even if the choir wasn’t there some week.’ And I hadn’t been to Mass in 30 years really.”
Everyone here acknowledges the hurt the church has caused.
“I’m a Catholic in spite of the church, not because of the church,” says one woman, who wishes to remain anonymous. “I have experience of child sexual abuse, clerical sexual abuse...I haven’t got over it, but I don’t let it be a barrier to my relationship with God, and I don’t let anything the church is doing be a barrier. It’s me straight to him.
“And I come in here for other reasons. I like to hear the word of the lord. I like to hear Fr Tim’s homily. I like to meet my friends.”
She always went to Mass, she says. “At home I was presented with a God of love and forgiveness and inclusivity, but not in school, definitely not from the nuns. I suppose I’ve come back to that nice, inclusive, all-loving, all-forgiving god.”
What is the church going to be like in the future? “It’s going to be a more sincere church,” says choir-mistress Mary Daly. “A lot of us in my generation would have gone out of habit, out of routine. [Now] people come for comfort, for community, they come for connection, they come to meet their friends, they come to sing, they come to hear what the presider has to say.
Have other people in their lives fallen away from religion? Geraldine Landers, who is in her 40s, talks about friends who come only for special occasions. “I have this argument sometimes, ‘you want to christen your baby, you want to have Communion, you want to have Confirmation but you won’t go to Mass’?” She laughs. “No one ever wins that argument.”
“In five or 10 years there won’t be many people,” says one woman. “When our generation is gone it will be lost then.”
“I’m hoping it doesn’t end with your generation,” says Jenni.
What would they like to see change?
“There’s the big question of women priests,” says Mary Daly. “We need to be left in. We’re the superior of the species…If you take the women out of the church the doors would close.”
“If [priests] could get married it would make an awful difference,” says Janice.
There seems to be much agreement on these points.
Is the pope’s visit important?
“He’s the head of the church and he’s coming to our little island,” says Mary Daly. “It’s going to be historic. For a choir from a rural area to be part of this is superb…He’s trying to do the right thing … He’s trying to clean out the curia and all of this.”
“The boat needs to be rocked,” says Mary Smiddy, a member of the pastoral council. “He’s looking at equality, looking at reaching out, dealing with the poor and not having a hierarchical structure.”
Is there anything you’d like him do when he’s here?
Mary Daly suggests he is going to have to address abuse “in some shape or form”.
"I'd like him to make a gesture to the priests in this country who were silenced," says the woman who spoke about her abuse, "like Tony Flannery and Brian D'Arcy. I think it's an awful pity he let the Year of Mercy go without making a gesture."
Someone mentions the fact that many Catholics voted ‘yes’ to same-sex marriage and repealing the Eighth Amendment. “Well, I would make my decision a personal decision, I wouldn’t make the decision I was told to make,” says Maura.
“How do you even define Catholicism anymore?” asks Mary Daly.
It’s a rhetorical question. She doesn’t know the answer. “What is it to be a Catholic anymore? What are the boundaries? What are the rules? Do you like the rules?” She laughs. “I would be totally confused personally, but I still like to come and sing.”