For the 8:30 a.m. daily mass at St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral, an imposing old church just off O'Connell Street in the heart of Dublin, you might expect to see Father O'Sullivan at the altar. Or perhaps Father O'Reilly or Father O'Flaherty.

Father Owuamanam comes as a bit of a surprise.

But Remigius Owuamanam, a priest from Nigeria, is a good reflection of the changes that have overtaken both church and society in Ireland during the last 20 years.

Like most of its continental neighbors, Ireland is undergoing a severe crisis of faith. Religious belief in this island bastion of Roman Catholicism is under siege by the twin forces of secularization and modernization. In addition, the recent exposure of a deeply ingrained culture of sexual abuse and cover-up by the clergy has dealt a staggering blow to the church's prestige.

What makes Ireland an interesting case study is the speed of the decline and the efforts of the Catholic Church -- lay people and clergy--to come to grips with the crisis. The Irish experience points to possible paths for the future of traditional religion in a globalizing society.

Through most of the 20th Century, Ireland was poor, backward and deeply Catholic. Irish Catholicism tended to be of a particularly harsh and unforgiving variety.

"Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood," wrote Frank McCourt, whose memoir, "Angela's Ashes," resonated among many Irish Catholics on both sides of the Atlantic.

Today, Ireland is prosperous, cosmopolitan and no longer so very Catholic. As recently as the 1970s, 90 percent of the Irish identified themselves as Catholic and almost the same number went to mass at least once a week; now the figure for mass attendance is closer to 25 percent, according to church officials in Dublin.

When Ireland was poor, its main export was people. Among them were many Catholic priests. Irish seminaries produced far more priests than the country needed, and the main beneficiary of the overflow was the United States, where American Catholicism once spoke with a distinctly Irish brogue.

These days Irish seminaries are nearly empty. Last year, for the first time in its history, the Dublin archdiocese ordained no new priests. Foreign priests like Owuamanam have been brought in to fill the gap.

The collapse has occurred with breathtaking rapidity and, in hindsight, many Irish Catholics can identify when the tipping point was reached.

"The 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II, that was the high-water mark of Catholicism in Ireland," said Simon Rowe, a Catholic commentator and editor of The Voice Today, a new Catholic newspaper.

But the visit also contained the seeds of decline, Rowe said.

About two-thirds of Ireland's population turned out to see the pope during his three-day visit. On one memorable day, more than 200,000 young people attended a special mass at Galway's Ballybrit racecourse. Before the pope's arrival, they were entertained by two of the Irish church's most popular and charismatic leaders: Bishop Eamon Casey of Galway and Rev. Michael Cleary, Dublin's "singing priest," who had his own show on national radio.

A decade later, it would come to light that Casey was the father of a son by an American woman and had "borrowed" from church funds to silence them. Cleary, it was discovered, fathered two children and had an abusive relationship with a troubled young woman who worked as his housekeeper.

"There was a disconnect," Rowe said. "And after that, a dramatic unraveling of the faith."

Flight from the pews

As the sex scandals gathered momentum through the 1990s, so did the flight from the pews. For the church, which once occupied a position at the pinnacle of Irish society, it was a stunning fall from grace.

Although Ireland has been Catholic since the 5th Century, the church's development as an institution was a product of the 19th Century and the religious renaissance that followed Catholic emancipation by the British Parliament in 1829.