English priest optimistic despite rows as pope set to visit
When media coverage of the scandal over child sex abuse in the Catholic church reached a frenzy this year, Father Paul Keane admits there were times he wondered how he could continue his work as a priest.
But as the 35-year-old Londoner prepares for this week's historic visit by Pope Benedict XVI to Britain, he is confident Catholicism has a role in this liberal, increasingly secular and officially Anglican country.
"The past year has been an extraordinary year for the Catholic Church, because of the abuse scandal," he told AFP from his home in Essex, east of London, where he is a chaplain at the local university and parish priest.
"It's shaken our confidence on being on the street as priests. Back in March or April, you'd be thinking, 'what do people think of me'?"
He recalled stopping at a motorway service station where "I was painfully conscious of being in a collar walking into the gentleman's toilets, because of the whole issue of priests' bodies and sex".
But his optimism was restored by the "goodwill" he feels towards him and the five million Catholics in England, despite their minority status in a country where 20 million people identify themselves as Anglican.
"I think the church in England and Wales has much heart in it," he said.
The Catholic authorities are hoping this positivity will drown out any protests over the abuse scandal and the Church's attitude to gays and contraception when the pope visits Scotland and England this week.
Keane is well aware of the pressures on Catholics in Britain, where casual sexual relations are common and gay civil partnerships have been legal for years.
The students he works with require "resilience" to be strict Catholics when "there are always going to be people questioning you".
He is "saddened" by the high number of abortions carried out in Britain and by equality legislation which has shut down Catholic adoption agencies that refuse to help same-sex couples, but knows he must be flexible.
"I presume when I preach that there will be a variety of views among them (the congregation), that what I need to do is think it through with them," he said.
However he suggested England's vocal atheist lobby, which is organising a demonstration against the pope Saturday, "gives a false impression" of a country "that is much more engaged in faith" than many think.
He grew up in a "monocultural world" of Irish Catholics in east London, encountering few non-Catholics until he reached university, by which point he had already settled on his vocation.
At the end of his history degree he went to study in Rome, but four years in, he was struck by doubt.
"I wasn't sure whether I was able and ready to commit to being celibate, and would I enjoy the work?" he wondered. A year in a London parish convinced him and he finished the course.
Since then, Keane has observed the full range of British Catholicism, working in rich, poor, white working-class and immigrant communities.
Despite the decline in the number of priests being ordained in England -- an average of just 27 a year in the 2000s compared to 91, 94, 75 and 65 in the four previous decades -- he insists the church is alive and well.
The ordination figures "feels like failure," Keane admits, even though congregations in southern England are being boosted by Catholic immigrants from countries such as Mexico and Nigeria.
He insists the number of priests is increasing, because of a "new movement" of faith among young British people, inspired by the teachings of the late pope John Paul II.
"Probably the hardest thing for the Catholic church to cope with is apathy," he says, but this weekend could change this -- "the pope is a really big show."
© 2010 AFP