Alan Tobin, 19, a biomedical student at the Dublin Institute of Technology, disagreed that the country had become less religious. "Many people still pray every day," he said. "It's just that there is more free will now, and it looks less religious from the outside."
Ireland produced more priests than it could use for generations, seeding the Catholic Church in other countries. The national diocesan seminary at Maynooth, 20 miles west of Dublin, has turned out more than 11,000 priests since its founding in 1795. They have been sent around the world, including to the United States, and founded major missionary societies in Africa and China.
The campus shows no signs of decline. Planted with ancient trees, flowers and expansive lawns, dominated by the soaring spire and the exquisite stained glass of its chapel, one of the largest Gothic choral chapels in the world, the college and seminary still exude permanence and serenity.
But instead of the 500 or so seminarians who would have studied here in the past, now there are but 60. And the college's numbers have been bulked up mainly by lay students of both sexes studying theology.
Last year, 15 men were ordained as Catholic priests for the entire island, with 5.6 million people (4.2 million of them Catholic). In the Anglican-linked Church of Ireland, a fraction of the Catholic Church's size, 19 were ordained, including several women.
John Coughlan, of Sligo, in northwest Ireland, is acutely aware of how much his country has changed. But the stocky 24-year-old with a baritone voice and an easy manner has pledged himself to the church anyway.
As a fourth-year seminarian, due to become a diocesan priest in three more years, he expects his career to be far different from those of earlier generations. Years ago, he says, who could have imagined that a seminarian like him would have his own car parked out in back?
Although few in his generation have chosen his path, Coughlan believes his faith isn't an anomaly.
"The very fact of my being here means that I am not out of step with my generation," he said. "Because there is something still there."
Coughlan said the Irish Catholic Church would have to change in a new environment that included far fewer priests.
"What we see in Ireland is a church that had been more institutional than a community," he said. "Now the church is searching for community."
"Mass is important, and so is our meeting after Mass for coffee and doughnuts. When that doesn't happen, people are missing out," he said.
He does not expect to lead and rule over a parish. Instead, he will be part of a team in which lay people have prominent roles. And if people choose not to come to church, then he must take the initiative.
"That means I go out there as a priest five or 10 years from now and I do what the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons do. I knock on people's doors, and I say, 'I am a priest and I just wanted to meet you and maybe let's have a chat and a cup of coffee,' and that's where it starts. That's where it's at," Coughlan said.
In fact, some conservative Catholics suggest a different kind of church may emerge in Europe because of its current crisis. The Catholic Church they foresee would be smaller, unbending in its teachings, and relying more on lay people to reawaken Christian passions for those who want to follow.
"The liberals [in society] have had the pitch for 20 years," said Simon Rowe, 32, a founder of a new independent Catholic newspaper here, called the Voice, which has hired a staff of 15 and puts its focus on culture, faith and family.
A conservative Catholic who clearly hoped to set a spark, Rowe said that the church should offer young people an alternative to Europe's dominant liberal secularism.
He said there was a chance for the church to propose "a vibrant orthodoxy" to replace a "jaded liberalism."
"I think to be a Catholic today is the real liberalism, the real radicalism," he said.
He cited John Paul's teachings to the young, which he said could apply to the next generation of Catholics in Ireland.
"He said be what you are, and you will set the world ablaze . Rather than conform to the world, the world will conform to you."
Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux in Rome contributed to this report.