Year by year, the group of graduating seminary students gets smaller. Slowly, the number of young men willing to replenish the priesthood of the once-mighty Roman Catholic Church in Ireland is shrinking. In the future, the priests celebrating Mass in the Emerald Isle's churches may well be from South America or Africa, not Cork or Kerry.
Overwhelmed by a tide of secularism and economic prosperity, challenged by a new mood of independence in the population and devastated by a decade of scandals involving serial child abuse by clerics, the Catholic Church in Ireland finds itself demoralized, almost in shock.
"Irish Catholicism as we knew it in Ireland is gone," said Patsy McGarry, religious affairs writer for the Irish Times.
The days when nearly everyone was a churchgoing Catholic, the parish priest was revered and church doctrine was central in public policy and private life are no more.
"Ireland has become part of the Western European scene. We have been moving in a secularizing direction. But the pace of all this has been accelerated by the extraordinary leap forward in our country's prosperity," Cardinal Desmond Connell, retired archbishop of Dublin, said in an interview with The Times in Rome this month.
"There's a lot of surplus cash around, and people are enjoying it. I have no trouble with that, but when they enjoy the immediate, they forget the ultimate."
For Pope John Paul II, who helped to bring freedom of worship to people in Eastern Europe, the erosion of faith and the rise of secularism in the rest of Europe was one of the recurring themes of his pontificate and a trend that only accelerated during his tenure.
But it is doubtful that even John Paul expected the church to retreat as quickly as it did in Ireland, long a bastion of Catholicism and among the first places he wanted to visit after being named pontiff.
On his trip in September 1979, drawing the largest crowds in Irish history and speaking to more than 1 million people in Dublin's Phoenix Park, he reminded the Irish people of their long loyalty to Catholicism in the face of persecution. He asked them to remain true to that faith, and cautioned against embracing new freedoms or novel ideas about personal morality, which he said led to a new form of enslavement.
Although the pontiff was rapturously received on that visit, which is still fondly remembered, it coincided with the beginning of a long decline. Mass attendance fell throughout the 1980s, a slide that accelerated in the 1990s when the country's sexual abuse scandals exploded.
In the 1970s, more than 90% of Irish Catholics said they went to Mass once a week. Now the number is 44%, according to a recent survey. (Although a dramatic drop, the level remains high among Western countries.)
In addition, "a la carte" Catholicism took hold and affected political life. Young Catholics began to excuse themselves from certain church teachings, such as the ban on premarital sex. Married couples practiced birth control. The sale of condoms was legalized in 1979, despite church opposition.
In 1995, a referendum amended the constitution to give couples the right to divorce.
A similar measure in 1986 had been roundly defeated.
Despite the setbacks, clerics and other church officials argue that Catholicism is still important to the Irish. People still go to Mass on holy days and for baptisms, weddings and funerals. Most parents still rear their children as Catholics.
Father James Noonan, 43, prior of St. Teresa of Avila Church, just off trendy Grafton Street in central Dublin, says his church draws large crowds on Sundays. Even on weekdays, dozens of people, young and old, could be seen wandering in from shopping or before or after work to attend Mass, prayers or penance services.
"When priests are available and willing to sit and listen, people will come," said Noonan, who has a community of nine Carmelite-order priests in residence. The funeral of the pope in particular touched many people in Ireland, he said.
"A lot of people out there felt it very deeply," Noonan said. "The Christianity is there, but it needs something to tap into that. People are in search of something deeper, and the church is always challenged to respond to that."