Old certainties no longer hold sway as faithful flock to Clonard Novena
Worshippers at the Clonard Novena in west Belfast expressed mixed views yesterday on the way ahead for the Church amid controversies over abortion and same-sex marriage.
Hundreds of people gathered at Clonard Monastery for the second of nine days of special religious services.
Many have taken part their whole lives, while several families brought their children for the first time.
With the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church challenged by recent developments in the Republic, the faithful reflected on the debates and the upcoming papal visit.
Four-month-old Orlaigh McKervey, from Dunmurry, was attending for the first time with her mother Erin McKervey (30) and grandmother Kaye McCourt (57).
"It's lovely. This is Orlaigh's first time and she's been a good girl," said Erin.
"I think Mum brought me as a wee baby, like Orlaigh, and every year since."
Erin and Kaye want a new Church policy on same-sex marriage, but they oppose any change on abortion.
Kaye said: "It's very spiritual to get to the Novena. It gets families together as well.
"We'll be here every day. The visiting American priest today was very good. With the arrival of Orlaigh, we were against any change (on abortion). We want things to stay the same."
Erin added: "How could anyone look at a wee baby like her and decide their life wasn't worth living?"
On same-sex marriage, Erin said: "I do think they should change. That is different. It's not life or death and is more about keeping up with the times.
"They should have a look at it again."
Learning that the Pope would not be crossing the border on his upcoming trip was a big disappointment for both.
"I saw the Pope in Galway when I was only 19," said Kaye.
"I'd love to go and see him again, but it would have been great to have him here to bring people together."
Anne McAllister (83), from the Falls Road, has been attending the Novena all her life and supports traditional teachings.
"I would never miss it because it just seems to awaken your faith even more," she said.
"It's just lovely listening to all the different stories you hear. The preachers are wonderful.
"It has been a challenging time for the Church, but if you've faith in God, that's who at the very end you're going to face.
"I'm a very traditional person, so if you face something you wonder about, you go back to God's teachings and the Bible.
"It's disappointing the Pope isn't coming here. I'm hoping to travel to see him. As long as he's in Ireland that's the main thing. This is Ireland too."
Retired nurse Ethna McGurk (81), from Magherafelt, said she was undecided on the issue of abortion.
"The Novena means an awful lot to me spiritually," she added.
"I trained in the Royal Victoria Hospital about 60 years ago, and I was coming then.
"If an abortion referendum came up here, I would have to give it a lot of thought if I was to say yes or no.
"There are pros and cons. I've seen a lot in my nursing career and in some cases it's necessary."
She witnessed the last papal visit to Ireland in 1979, but this time she will be happy to watch from her living room.
"We're too old, and at £85 for a ticket, we couldn't afford that, and it'll be on TV for free." Bernie Sloan (63), from north Belfast, said: "It's been lovely. You only have to look at how many come to show you what it means.
"I probably have changed my views on abortion and same-sex marriage over the years.
"But I'm still not sure yet if the Church needs to change its position."
Paul Chapman (25) and Michelle McKenna (29), from Andersonstown, brought their son Paul-James for the first time.
Born two months prematurely, his parents gave thanks yesterday after he struggled with his health early on.
Paul said: "The Novena means a lot to my family, especially with my granny and granda passing away recently and our young lad being born premature.
"This gives us the faith to keep going on and making sure he's healthy.
"He had a hard start, but he's come along a good bit now."
Michelle said: "Novena for me is about thanking God that everything's okay with him (her son) and praying for my daughter, as well to have healthy, happy lives."
On the recent social upheaval in the Republic, both want the Church to change on abortion and same-sex marriage.
"I think abortion... for women's rights, it was a good thing," said Paul.
"Obviously, the Catholic Church means an awful lot to me, but I disagree with it on those points.
Michelle said: "I think women should have those rights.
"I don't think it's fair, but I don't think the Church will be changing their minds any time soon.
"On gay marriage, it's 2018 and they should definitely be changing with the times."
Paul said he hoped to travel over the border to see Pope Francis.
He said his late grandparents had made the trip to see Pope John Paul II.
Robert Carmichael has attended the Novena for the past 30 years and extended his own invitation to the Pope.
"He's still welcome to come here and call for tea with me if he likes," he said.
"The Novena means a lot to me. You get peace of mind from listening to the word of God.
"The thing about the two referendums is that it's out of sight, out of mind.
"If we were living down there, we might feel differently."
Colette Rocks, (58) from north Belfast, has been coming to the Novena since her school days.
"I'm enjoying it very much," she said. "What I always get out of it is a lot of comfort and peace by being with lots of other people enjoying the same thing.
"I think the Church is moving forward, but I really do think it needs to modify its policy on certain things."