Unexpected Defeat of Referendums Shows Growing Power of Ireland’s Traditional Catholics

DUBLIN (RNS) — At a Mass said in Latin on Sunday (March 10), Ireland’s traditional Catholics declared political victory, days after a pair of referendums aimed at secularizing the Irish Constitution were unexpectedly and resoundingly defeated.

On Friday, the Irish government put two measures to a vote that would have extended the rights of unmarried couples in the country’s constitution and removed language defining women’s roles “within the home.” Both had been widely expected to pass despite enjoying little debate in the Dail, or Irish parliament, and after a rubber stamp by all three of the Irish Republic’s main political parties.

Both proposals failed, even in progressive Dublin. When all votes were counted, 67.7% of voters had rejected the family amendment, while 73.9% rejected the measure dealing with women’s roles, referred to as the care amendment. Turnout was 44.4%.

On Sunday, as pundits and reporters struggled to explain the most strongly rejected referendum in the republic’s history, roughly 200 traditional Catholics, many in their 30s and 40s, gathered at St. Kevin’s Church, Harrington Street, one of the few places in the city where the traditional, pre-Vatican II Latin Mass is still celebrated, for a triumphant celebration and a redoubt of conservative Catholics. 

Even as a much smaller crowd arrived for the noon English-language Mass, those who had attended the 10:30 a.m. Latin Mass — men in tweed jackets and women in long skirts and white, floral head coverings — packed into the tight parish hall for tea, still buzzing with delight at the vote.

Sign for a voting location in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Daniel O’Connor)

The Latin Mass was largely done away with by the Second Vatican Council, when bishops meeting in Rome from 1962-1965 instituted Masses in local languages. However, some traditional Catholics remain drawn to the old Latin rite that dates to the 1500s.

That rite, which was allowed to be said more widely under Pope Benedict XVI, has become a flashpoint under Pope Francis, who in 2021 barred priests from saying it without permission from their bishops. Traditionalists have seen it as a symbol of the larger battle in the church over matters such as LGBT inclusion and the roles of women.

This divide was on display at the entrance to St. Kevin’s, in copies of Catholic Voice, a traditionalist newspaper whose latest issue looks forward to St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 while urging Irish Catholics to have the “courage” to declare that “liberalism is a sin” and deriding the “myths created by the homosexualist movement.” In a time when the pope is allowing priests to bless people in LGBTQ unions, the paper maintained that those who do not oppose “disordered sexuality” are “straddling Satan’s fence.”

The message that Catholic values are under threat from within the church has hit home in Ireland, where society was overwhelmingly Catholic a generation ago. As of 2022, Catholics made up just 69% of the population, down sharply from 79% in 2016. Weekly Mass attendance among Catholics hovers around one-third nationally, down from over 90% in the 1970s.

Accompanying this transformation have been referendums in which the Irish have legalized divorce (1995), gay marriage (2015) and abortion (2018).

But references to both marriage as a fundamental societal unit and to the roles of women in the home will now stay in the constitution. “It’s a great result for women, for mothers, for the homes and for marriage,” said Maria Steen, a prominent conservative activist. “And I think it’s a real rejection of the government’s attempt to, you know, delete all of that from the constitution.”

Steen ran a brief campaign that framed the removal of motherhood from the constitution as both sexist and anti-Catholic. She said Friday’s election result was a sign that the Irish had “gratitude” for motherhood.

St. Kevin’s Church, Harrington Street, in Dublin, Ireland, Sunday, March 10, 2024. (Photo by Daniel O’Connor)

At St. Kevin’s, Michelle McGrath, a conservatively dressed woman in her 40s, said she was unsurprised by the vote result. She attributed it in part to the vagueness of the proposals, which would have equated marriage with other “durable” relationships. “Most people were confused about what it was, really,” said McGrath. “I don’t know what I’m being asked here.”

Confusion about what would be deemed durable relationships seemed to doom the referendum on marriage. In a televised debate on March 5 between Steen and Ireland’s deputy prime minister, or Tanaiste, Micheál Martin, he suggested that the court would decide what constituted durability, which would determine parental rights and inheritances. 

McGrath said deeper frustrations were also at play. Steen and the “No” campaign suggested repeatedly that the broadened relationship laws would have facilitated greater immigration into Ireland, which has become increasingly controversial in the once demographically homogenous republic.

“People are starting to find their courage again in Ireland, and the people who’ve been silenced for a very long time are starting to call out the obvious injustices going on,” McGrath said. “The Irish have been put paddy-last, to use the pun, in their own nation. They have been sent to the back of the queue while minorities get the majority.”

Meanwhile, Shane Duffley, an early-middle-aged man with an intense stare, said the proposal on women’s roles was “messing with Irish mammies.”

“You don’t mess with Irish women,” he said firmly, eliciting strong nods from two friends — one a European immigrant with a small child in tow and the other a tall Irishman who, like many younger traditional Latin Mass Catholics, homeschools his kids.

Maggie, a middle-aged woman who declined to give her last name, said the liberalization of Ireland had “radicalized” the country. “Ireland has changed a lot in my lifetime,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that everything that the government proposes is something that people accept.”

First published in Religion News Service.

Day Two: Bridging the Divides in Dublin’s Minority Faiths

DUBLIN - After a hearty buffet breakfast of sausages, potatoes, eggs and black and white pudding, we convened in the lobby at 8:45 a.m. – on the dot, as Greg Khalil, our professor, had hammered into our heads the night before. Ian Bermingham, our tour guide from yesterday, was already there in his tweed coat, green Doc Martens and newsboy hat, ready to guide us through the last three centuries of Irish history while strolling through Dublin. 

"Who Said We Never Had an Empire?"

Bermingham greeted us with the same energetic excitement and witty jokes as yesterday, brightening another gray, misty morning. He led us to Dublin’s General Post Office, where we learned about the 1916 Easter Rising—when Irish nationalists, including an all-female paramilitary group, seized the GPO and other government buildings in an armed insurrection and proclaimed the Irish Republic. The rebellion lasted for six days before being suppressed by the British Army, but it reawakened a thirst for Irish Independence. 

We stopped on the O’Connell Bridge overlooking the River Liffey, which geographically separates the city into North Dublin and South Dublin. It was also the subject of Bermingham’s “most boring fact”—the bridge is wider than it is long.

He talked to us next about the Great Famine, also called the Irish Potato Famine. In typical Bermingham fashion, he narrated a horrifying historic event in a way that was thorough and peppered with humorous quips and fist bumps as a prize to those of us answering his questions. 

Our guide, Ian Bermingham, on the O'Connell Bridge (photo by Ellie Davis)

He shared that the famine was so devastating in part because of the Irish government’s response to the crisis. The Irish government did not provide any government assistance, more concerned about establishing a welfare state than its starving citizens. Potatoes were a cash crop, so when food ran out and farmers had to resort to eating their own crops, they incurred a significant financial loss and could not afford to pay rent. As a result, many Irish people were evicted by their landlords or forced to emigrate to another country. The Irish Potato Famine was a tragedy, resulting in about a million deaths. Bermingham explained that it is also the reason why Irish culture made its way across the globe. More than 70 million people worldwide have Irish ancestry, and about half of them live in the United States.

“That's why the grass is so green in Ireland; we are off walking on your grass,” Bermingham said, throwing his head back in a roaring laugh. “Wherever you're from, is there not an Irish pub in your town? Do you not celebrate St. Patrick's Day?” he questioned. “Who said we never had an empire?”

Enquiry at the Buddhist Zen Centre

The window at the Buddhist Zen Centre is a holdover from its time as a solicitor's office. (Photo by Dina Katgara)

​​Yesterday, we ventured to Dublin’s Temple Bar District for a lunchtime Guinness and our first taste of Irish pub culture. Today, we returned to the District for a very different purpose: to visit the Dublin Zen Centre and meet Zen Buddhist priest Ian Kilroy. 

We passed through an unassuming door beside a tattoo parlor and scaled a steep set of stairs. As we entered the two-roomed Centre, which Kilroy revealed used to be a solicitor’s office, we took our shoes off and settled onto meditation cushions. Our group of 20 sat cross-legged in silence as we observed Kilroy tie his brown robe and light two types of incense, a stick and a powder, at the altar. Later, he told us they represent the two aspects of reality: the stick of incense represents the subjective, and the powdered incense represents the universal aspect of us, our “innate oneness.” Kilroy struck a singing bowl, and we sat in stillness, our eyes closed, the sounds of Dublin filtering in through the two windows and the smell of incense wafting through the air. 

Unlike some Buddhists who stay away from politics, Kilroy considers himself an activist of sorts. He described the discrimination that often comes along with living as a religious minority in Ireland. In one instance, his son was denied acceptance to a Catholic school when Kilroy marked his spouse and himself as identifying with “no religion.” When he threatened legal action, the school asked him to reapply. This time, he marked himself as “baptized Catholic,” and his son was accepted. 

“It is a residue of discrimination that should be addressed,” Kilroy explained, “but it persists and is ignored.”

For example, there are only Catholic and Protestant chaplains at hospitals and schools. Kilroy’s efforts for more representation of other faiths have failed time and again. He spoke critically of the country’s systemic prejudice against families who are not followers of its two most practiced religions.

“We are locked into a binary imagination,” he said. 

But he said he has hope because of organizations like Dublin City Interfaith Forum, which put together a list of people you can ring if you need a rabbi or Buddhist priest since chaplains aren’t available. It also encourages conversations among individuals with different backgrounds — something we as journalists have tried to achieve in our time in the religiously diverse Dublin. 

A former journalist himself, Kilroy advised us to remember in our reporting that religions are made up of individuals. 

“We tend to think that religions are free-floating sets of doctrines,” he said. “But in fact they’re lived by people.”

An Afternoon of Reporting

Emerging from the peaceful Zen center, our class dispersed for an afternoon of independent reporting and wandering. 

Renata Carlos Daou spent the afternoon visiting three historic cathedrals: St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Whitefriar Street Church and Christ Church Cathedral. She observed services in the first two and a choir performance in the third, seeking to understand how these traditional Church of Ireland ceremonies differed from others. 

One of Sam Shepherd’s sources invited him on a private LGBTQ+ walking tour of Dublin who told him stories about the former criminalization of homosexuality and a series of murders of Queer men in the 1980s that the government ignored, giving rise to Ireland’s first Pride Festival in 1993. 

In search of murals painted in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, Meghnad Bose found a heart-wrenching image of Palestinian journalist Samia al-Atrash holding her niece Masa’s lifeless body in her arms. He shared a photograph of the mural on his Instagram. To his surprise, al-Atrash responded with a Palestinian flag and a broken heart emoji. 

Others spent the afternoon wandering the cobblestone streets of central Dublin, visiting museums, exploring Trinity College’s campus or catching up on rest.  

Stay tuned for these pieces in the weeks to come!

Iftar at the Islamic Cultural Center

We reconvened in the hotel lobby at 5 p.m. and climbed onto a bus, which lumbered out of the city center and into the suburbs. Today was the first day of Ramadan, and we were invited to observe iftar — or the breaking of the fast at sunset — at the Islamic Cultural Center of Ireland. At 6:24, the sun set, and while the call to prayer rang through the room, dozens of men and children took their seats on the floor, shoulder to shoulder, and broke their fast in unison with dates, water and milk.

Imam Ali Selim gave us an overview of Muslim life in Ireland over dinner: lentil soup and a heavy portion of Biryani and lamb. Even though Selim hadn’t eaten all day, he insisted on serving us before himself and exemplified generous hospitality. Salim ended the meal with a beautiful message of unity. “We are all brothers and sisters in humanity,” he said. “We may have different faiths, but that is for God to judge.” 

Edited by Trisha Mukherjee

Christianity and natural farming in the Hudson Valley

Christianity and natural farming in the Hudson Valley

Sara Badilini

Dairy farmer Rick Vreeland tends to his cows. (Photo/Sara Badilini)

A tall wooden cross and an American flag announce the entrance to “Freedom Hill Farm,” in Otisville, a rural village in Orange County, N.Y, that is north of the city, but not quite upstate.

The owners of this 50-acres , Rick Vreeland and his wife Julie Vreeland, are born again Christians. By combining the principles of natural farming with those of Christianity, they hope to fulfill their mission of sharing the Gospel with others.

“We don’t own the farm, we simply take care of it,” said Rick Vreeland, 67. “It belongs to God.”

The cows and their calves mooing in the barn are the soundtrack of this holy land, which is dotted with colorful signs singing God’s praises.

Jewish, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and even atheists visit the farm frequently as well however, shopping their products and asking questions about the owners’ faith.

From the cows’ milk, the Vreelands produce yogurt, buttermilk, and kefir that they sell and distribute in retail locations from Albany to Brooklyn.

All of the employees — two full-time, five part-time — and the several volunteers are Christians. “We don’t ask for it, but God seems to send us only other Christians,” Julie Vreeland, 64, said.

Faith hasn’t always been so central to the Vreelands.

Julie Vreeland grew up in Otisville in a Roman Catholic family, but she “unconsciously fell away from religion,” right after receiving the sacrament of confirmation, at the age of 13.

Rick Vreeland never stepped into a church until he turned 38. “Everything changed that year. I was crossing a yard and I heard a voice telling me ‘You have to go to church,’” he said.

He doesn’t know why God picked that particular moment of his life to speak to him, but ever since, he has dedicated his life to what that voice called him to do.

After growing up on the family farm, not far away from where Freedom Hill Farm is today, he started farming in 1972, when he opened his own commercial farm with a colleague. His wife joined him in 1975, after they got married. Together they worked on their commercial farm for 26 years with more than 2,000 cows.

Despite the success of their business, they decided to quit and four years later they opened Freedom Hill Farm. The barn had been a property of the Vreeland family since the 1930s. After farming it for generations, the dairy farm shut down in the 1960s, and the barn sat empty until May 2007, when the Vreelands opened Freedom Hill and nine milking cows started calling the barn home.

“Before renovating the place we had been praying for years,” JulieVreeland said. “I wanted to do something for Jesus, but didn’t know what.”

Then they came up with the idea of a small dairy farm that could also be a Christian ministry for the youth.

The Vreelands understood they made the right choice when they met their neighbors, who run the Freedom Farm Community, a nonprofit that also happens to be a Christian ministry for young people in the form of an organic farm, where they grow tomatoes, cilantro, pumpkins and all sorts of vegetables.

Edgar Hayes, the nonprofit’s executive director, remembers when the Vreelands knocked on the door and announced the plan for their land. The Vreelands and Freedom Farm Community still cooperate today.

“We have our own program for the youths and they’re really busy with the dairy farm, but their cows come on our land, and we share a mission,” he said.

Lou Enoff, president of the Christian Farmers Outreach — a program based in Maryland that supports Christian farmers around the world with different initiatives — explains the connection between farming and Christianity using the parable of the sower explained in Matthew’s gospel.

“To sow the seeds of the gospel you talk to people to tell them about Christ,” Enoff, 78, said.

Christian farming became a popular concept in the United States in the 1980s. To respect God’s creation, devoted farmers started promoting organic agriculture and unprocessed foods, as opposed to more industrialized products, Enoff said.

Some Christian farmers gathered in organizations such as Christian Farmers Outreach, and the Christian Farmers fellowship. Others, like the Vreelands, carry out their Christian mission on their own.

“Once the seed is planted, if it falls on good ground, it grows and produces crops,” Enoff said. “If it falls in the weeds, then the weeds can choke it out. It's similar to evangelism.”

Today, the Vreelands own 36 milking cows and have around 1,000 clients, who come to the farm once or twice a week to collect their order or raw milk. Freedom Hill is one of only a few farms that sells raw, unpasteurized milk and products. They believe that producing whole foods, while respecting their animals and caring for the land is what makes their farming Christian.

The days at Freedom Hill Farm start early. Julie wakes up at 3.30 a.m., checking the milk orders, while her husband starts the day at 4 a.m. Once they are both awake, they study the Bible for about an hour before heading out into the fields.

“We pray for the cows, the land, the people we know. And we pray every day for divine meetings here at the farm,” said Rick Vreeland.

By 5 a.m. he is milking the cows, while his wife feeds the goats. The rest of the farm soon comes to life. The couple’s son shows up to gather the products and deliver them to the retail locations, and the store manager arrives to open the shop. Other employees and volunteers work in the barn, others fill the milk, and one makes the yogurt — which includes the pasteurization process, the culture of the yogurt with bacteria, and a 10-hour setting.

In the early afternoon Julie Vreeland takes the calves from the barn into the adjacent meadow, followed by some young visitors. Each child leads their own calf with a rope, teaching the calves how to follow instructions. One of them struggles more than others when a stubborn calf refuses to follow the young girl’s lead.

When bigger groups of young visitors come the Vreelands organize afternoon activities and games to entertain them, always starting with a prayer. But the rest of the time with the children is dedicated to games and activities, it’s not meant to be a religion class, explains Julie. Vreeland.

“We don’t want to overwhelm the children with a lesson on faith, we want them to witness our faith through natural farming. But when the subject of religion comes up we are happy to speak about it,” she said.

The Vreelands say they have found a way to combine the farmers’ lifestyle with the Christian ministry, but they don’t belong to any particular branch of Christianity. After trying a number of churches and denominations, they’ve found their own way to worship and praise God.

They hold weekly Bible study gatherings at their home — now on hold because of the pandemic. They also pour their faith and Christian values into how they care for the cows.

As they explain, one of the basic needs for cows to thrive is comfort. That’s why the cows at Freedom Hill Farm stay in the barn only while they’re getting milked and they spend the rest of their day in the fields, where they can take a dip in the pond and lay down.

That heavenly environment for the livestock prolongs their life expectancy, Rick Vreeland explains. On average, the cows at Freedom Hill live around 10 years, he says as he caresses the back of a cow whose box is in front of a poster of “The Last Supper” by Da Vinci, hanging on the barn’s wall.

“You cannot just go to church and think you’re going straight to heaven,” Rick Vreeland said. “You have to be born twice and then you secure yourself a place in heaven. This, instead, is cow’s heaven.”

Covering Religion: Faith Wire

Covering Religion: Faith Wire

Although this semester has not turned out as planned, we told important across the globe.

This past winter, as the Omicron variant surged in New York City, we found ourselves rethinking the idea that we were about to reach the light at the end of the tunnel. Initially, we had planned to take a class reporting trip to Israel and Palestine, but unfortunately Columbia University insisted it was unwise to travel under such circumstances. Still, as Covid cases lessened, several members of our class were able to safely travel, domestically, as well as internationally. Thanks to the Scripps Howard Foundation's generous support of Covering Religion, students reported on pressing issues involving religion all over the world. 

Here on our website, you'll find stories that take place in Hungary, Italy, Canada, Texas, and of course, New York City. We have chosen the name "Faith Wire: Covering the Changing Face of Religion," as we'd like to share our stories with other publications. Our premise is that religion continues to evolve and we are on the front lines covering the shift. Thus, you will not only find stories here about houses of worship but about the religious implications of everything from the coronavirus to the war in Ukraine.

We hope you will continue to follow us and read our work in these exciting yet uncertain times.


The editorial team
Covering Religion: Faith Wire