Why we kicked the habit

Ireland's new breed of nuns knows all about the ways of the world - some even have piercings. But do these thoroughly modern sisters have what it takes to save souls, wonders David McKittrick
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Clare Gilmore has three very obvious sets of facial adornments - four studs in one ear, two in the other and a bar through one eyebrow. She also has three tattoos, depicting a fairy, a rose and a dolphin.

Clare Gilmore has three very obvious sets of facial adornments - four studs in one ear, two in the other and a bar through one eyebrow. She also has three tattoos, depicting a fairy, a rose and a dolphin.

Aged 27, she describes herself as a modern woman. She's had two long-term boyfriends, and goes to the cinema and the pub with her mates. She has a mobile - and a terrific giggle.

Clare is a novice with the Sisters of Mercy in Limerick, and is 18 months into the lengthy process of taking holy orders. She is a deeply religious person, but there is much about her that clearly confounds the traditional picture of the Irish nun. In the old days, nuns used to be described as demure, submissive and deferential - or perhaps forbidding and oppressive. But this is a new type of nun for a new, updated Ireland. She chooses her own clothes. She does not possess a habit.

Of the facial piercings, she says, with a laugh: "They stay. I'm a modern woman; I like piercings, I think they're attractive. It's just part of my personality, an expression of who I am. People ask me if I'll have to get rid of them, but they've been accepted by the sisters. It hasn't been an issue."

Clare is enjoying her new life, even though it has some obvious challenges. "I was going out with somebody, so it was a struggle for me. I loved this fella. It's a huge adjustment to start a life where you won't have a boyfriend again," she says.

Whatever her personal difficulties, the Irish Catholic Church itself faces many, much more formidable problems. Leading figures in its ranks now frankly acknowledge that it is in crisis. Clare Gilmore and others like her will bring fresh approaches and attitudes, but she is one of only a handful of new recruits signing on to become nuns, priests or brothers. This year, just a dozen women opted to become nuns.

For centuries, the Irish Catholic Church provided Ireland, and indeed the world, with religious personnel by the thousands. But now the flow is drying up. Clerical sex-scandals and other factors mean that attendance at mass has plummeted; fewer than half of Catholics now go to Mass at least once a week. In business terms, the church is short of both staff and customers.

Asked how she came to buck the trend, Clare Gilmore replies on a personal level. "I did resist," she says, "but the more I tried to put it to the back of my mind, the more it came to the front. I couldn't deny it for ever - it was just too strong."

She may be a thoroughly modern nun, but a great deal of change has been quietly taking place for years within the religious orders. There are still enclosed orders, from which the sisters rarely, if ever, emerge, but many nuns now work out in the community.

Sister Una Marren, who is with the Salesian order in Dublin, has been a fully fledged nun for many years. Like Clare, she has no habit, routinely dressing in jeans, sweatshirt and trainers. She says: "In my order, you have the freedom to be yourself. They don't pigeon-hole you or clamp you down."

She describes going to a rock concert recently: "I jumped up and down and clapped with the rest and I didn't feel like a fish out of water; I felt very much at home. I'm 40 now, but I feel as if I'm 21 - I feel that life is just stretching ahead."

Sister Marren has fulfilment and hope in her life, but her church faces deep adversity. She admits: "We are a smaller number than ever we were, and obviously we will get smaller as our sisters and priests die out. But that doesn't make me worried, because I feel God will provide. Those joining now are very committed, because they're not joining to be put on pedestals. We're not on pedestals any more; we've been knocked to the ground."

The church's troubles have come in waves since Ireland was described in the Sixties by a Vatican diplomat as "the most Christian country in the world". Contrast this with the Irish bishop who last year lamented that society "has been to a very large extent de-Christianised". One Dublin priest agreed with this assessment, saying: "In a sense, we've come through Christian Ireland into post-Christian Ireland."

The process of decline can be traced back to the late Sixties, when many thousands quietly rejected church teaching on contraception. The old deference steadily evaporated, with the markedly youthful Irish population greatly influenced by education, television and travel.

But in 1979, when the Pope visited Ireland, the church was still a muscular force in politics and society. Only much later was it revealed that two of the most prominent warm-up men for his appearances, a bishop and a priest, had both fathered unacknowledged children. Later, in 1992, came the revelations concerning the bishop, Eamonn Casey of Galway, which shook the church to its foundations - he was found to have a teenage son, whose education he had surreptitiously financed from diocesan funds.

But the Casey disclosures, although sensational at the time, almost paled into insignificance in the light of the subsequent torrent of cases of child abuse. The statistics of these are staggering; more than 4,600 applications for compensation have been lodged, with 50 new claims arriving each week. About 2,000 awards have already been made, and the average payout is €70,000 (£49,000). The total bill, which so far stands at €171m, may reach €700m.

The church's problems here have been compounded by the fact that it has failed to provide a convincing rebuttal of the charge that it allowed the innocent to suffer for the sake of maintaining its own dignified façade. It still stands accused of, at worst, connivance and, at best, gross negligence, and there is a widespread belief that its institutional instinct was to cover up such cases rather than properly to investigate complaints.

Even strong believers became highly critical. One - Mary McAleese, who went on to become the President of Ireland - has denounced what she called "a shabby, bleak procession of Pontius Pilate lookalikes, abusing priests, disinterested abbots, impotent cardinals and unempowered parents".

The full extent of the damage has become clear; an opinion poll showed that only 25 per cent of the country retained great confidence in church leaders. In a survey commissioned by the church itself, 94 per cent of respondents said that they believed it had been damaged. In another poll, three-quarters believed that the church had not dealt adequately with the abuse issue.

In a wider context, the fall in vocations and attendance at mass is in line with the general pattern in Western Europe, while Ireland's new prosperity has clearly made it a more materialistic country. But the scandals have turned decline into disaster.

Vocations Ireland is an association of brothers, sisters, missionaries and priests in Ireland. Father Gerard Dunne, whose job there is to attract more recruits for the various orders, says: "The sexual scandals have impinged and impacted upon us hugely. There is a crisis, and we're going through an antipathy from our own people. People have huge questions around that particular issue, and it's the most difficult question to try to answer. Looking at it from the outside, you'd say that we must be going through fierce turmoil. But we find the sense of support from ordinary people is actually quite remarkable."

Clare Gilmore says of the scandals: "Certainly, they are a huge thing that has put people off. It's something I've come across, and the revelations made it more difficult for me. Four people said to me, 'You do realise that if you become a religious sister you're going to end up abusing children, or being nasty, basically, to people in your care?' Two of them said it in a nasty way and two in a concerned way. It's less acceptable now to join a religious order than it was 40 years ago, and I feel that this is because of the revelations within the church."

Today, recruits may be few and far between, but Father Dunne takes heart from their quality. He argues: "We are getting exciting, dynamic individuals who are challenging us to look at ourselves in a very different way. They're a thinking generation that has been to university, or been at work. They're asking bigger questions - about God, spirituality, religion, the meaning of life. I think that some people are a bit disillusioned by the 'Celtic tiger'" - the phrase often used to describe Ireland's fast-growing economy over the past decade.

The church is certainly changing physically, in that it has had to sell many of its formidably big convent buildings, monasteries and other properties. In some cases, austere convent cells have become luxury apartments; not quite the kind of conversion the church had hoped for.

The Franciscan order, for example, is wondering what to do with a number of its large buildings now that so many of the friars have gone. This is a hardy order, however, having been in Ireland since 1226 and survived such difficulties as the Black Death and the attentions of Henry VIII. But, according to Father Louis Brennan: "In the 1970s, we were about 400 friars; now we are 120 or 130. We just cannot continue to be in all the places we were, and to continue all the work we did."

There are now actually a greater number of premises occupied by the religious in Ireland, as so many clergy have moved out of the big buildings and into the housing estates. In a couple of months, for example, Clare Gilmore will be moving into a bungalow, sharing it with four other nuns. Optimists view this as an advance, arguing that nuns and brothers are now becoming more closely connected to the local people and living among the poor they aspire to help.

In spite of the challenges, there is much hope left in the church. "I would want to speak of optimism and trust in the future," Father Brennan insists. Clare Gilmore, too, says she has never once regretted her decision to join.

Another nun, who has been in orders for more than 40 years, adds: "I feel that morale is high among religious orders. They feel they have a gift that has been given to them, and they want to hand it on. People are enthusiastic, despite all the setbacks." Father Dunne, taking the long view, adds: "Some orders almost died out in the 18th century, but those fellows never gave up hope, and I don't think we should, either. Maybe we've turned a corner - we like to think we have, anyway."

Clearly, however, the Irish church has huge obstacles to overcome. There is little sign that it has effectively pulled itself together and developed a sound strategy for recovery. In fact, few believe it can regain its former power and prominence. It has yet to come to terms with the problem of how to connect with modern, fast-changing Ireland. And it has yet to work out how to address the stigma inflicted by the wrongdoers in its ranks who did so much damage to the church, and to the children entrusted to its care.