DUBLIN (Reuters) - In the week that Ireland announced it was closing its embassy to the Vatican, the pews at Dublin's main Roman Catholic church are less than a third full for Sunday morning mass. There is no one under 30 in the congregation.
Revelations of child abuse and rape by Irish priests and Christian Brothers, a Catholic religious order, have shattered the dominant role of the Church in Ireland, which was found by successive investigations to have covered up the crimes.
The government insists the closure of the Vatican mission was to save money as part of an economic austerity drive. But few Mass-goers at Dublin's Pro-Cathedral believe that was the only reason.
"It's a pity. It's another aspect of Catholicism being swept away. It's the end of an era," says Kathleen Ryan, 75.
Ireland's fight for independence against centuries of Protestant English rule and the English Crown's historic suppression of Catholicism has bound the religion to the country's national identity.
Historically, the Irish government's relationship with the Vatican was hand in glove.
In 1937, the government consulted the archbishop of Dublin while drafting the constitution, which recognized the special position of the Catholic Church, a clause that was only removed in the early 1970s.
Ireland's membership of the European Union and the growing influence of secular thinking helped slowly to dismantle Catholic-influenced laws. A ban on homosexuality ended in 1993; a bar on divorce was lifted in 1995.
But a litany of abuse scandals in more recent times has brought relations with the Vatican to an all-time low. Two inquiries in 2009 condemned priests and religious orders of brothers and nuns for beating, starving and in some cases raping children over decades.
In July, Prime Minister Enda Kenny, a regular Mass-goer, told parliament the Vatican's handling of the scandals had been dominated by "elitism and narcissism" and accused it of trying to cover up the abuse.
The speech, once unthinkable in a country where elected officials cowered before the bishop's crozier, prompted the Vatican to recall its ambassador, or nuncio, to Ireland.
But Kenny, whose popularity ratings rose after the criticism, had tapped into a national mood.
Ireland has lost its Catholic devotion. Even two-thirds empty, the Pro-Cathedral is twice as crowded as the average elsewhere in the city where churches fill 15 percent of their pews.
A sign close to the altar reads "Dublin Needs Priests." Ireland, once one of the world's biggest exporters of clerics and missionaries, is struggling to persuade people to take up vocations.
"The so-called 'Land of Saints and Scholars' is long gone," said Kathleen Hennessy, 73.
"Our government is very anti-Church, our media is very anti-Church. There are only a few bad apples and they get all the headlines."
But Hennessy, a mother of five, is glad that the Church no longer dictates to government.
"They had too much power. Too much power corrupts, no matter what the institution."
Despite changing attitudes, the Catholic Church retains far more power in Ireland than in almost any other country in Europe. It controls most of the schools, and is involved in running many of the state's largest hospitals.
John Deegan, from a village in County Donegal at the center of an abuse scandal, has been protesting outside the Pro-Cathedral since January.
This Sunday, he has a special banner resting against the church's railings in honor of the Vatican closure. It reads: "The Vatican Embassy is Gone, The Papal Nuncio is Gone, End Diplomatic Immunity, Close All Churches and Leave Ireland Now."
Deegan, 51, sometimes dresses up as a priest with devil horns but this Sunday he is wearing a snappy tan-coloured suit with dark shades pushed back on his head.
When he started his protest, one Mass-goer berated him and doused him in holy water. Now some of the congregation stop for a chat.
"I'm delighted to see the embassy gone. I applaud that," said the former builder, unemployed for the past four years due to the recession. "Kenny's speech was brilliant but we need it backed up by more action."
Editing by Mark Trevelyan