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

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan stars as Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie
filmFirst look at Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey trailor
News
Lars Ulrich of Metallica performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury 2014
music
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Service Charge Accountant

£20,000 - £22,000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Property Management Grou...

Head of Sales, London

£70 - 95K OTE £125K. Plus Car,Private Healthcare and Pension: Charter Selectio...

Head of Sales, Milton Keynes

£70 - 90K OTE £125K. Plus Car,Private Healthcare and Pension: Charter Selectio...

Head of Sales, Bristol

£70 - 90K OTE £125K. Plus Car,Private Healthcare and Pension: Charter Selectio...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game