In September 1980, twenty young religious men entered the Marist Fathers seminary in Dublin - since then, seventeen have left and, of these, three are no longer believers.
Joe Armstrong was one of those earnest young men, intoxicated by the charismatic renewal movement, who decided in the year that Pope John Paul came to Ireland that he wanted to be a priest.
“Who needed a wife or children or a house or a job? That all seemed very boring when you were an adolescent and you had a sense of thrill and setting off on an adventure following Jesus.” Joe recalls of his 17-year old self.
But almost as soon as he entered the seminary, Joe could not quash his doubts about his religious faith and whether or not this was the right path for him. The loneliness of celibacy, the constraints of obedience and these religious doubts led him to eventually leave the order after nine years – but leaving was never going to be easy.
Thirty-two years after entering the order, Joe revisits the former seminary in the company of Father Denis Green SM, now in his nineties, who used to be Joe’s spiritual director.
Joe meets two other men – John O’Sullivan and Declan Wynne - who were in that class and who also now consider themselves unbelievers.
Declan left after ordination, having spent thirteen years in the order. John is the most recent to leave: he was a member of the order for some thirty years.
The documentary is not only the personal story of three men: their lives may be seen as a microcosm for the transformation taking place in Irish society in the last 50 years.
In the year that Joe entered the seminary, some 400 men all over Ireland also did likewise.
In the early 1980s there were forty seminarians in the Marist Fathers’ seminary in Ireland alone. Nowadays, there are no Irish seminarians in the order and Mount Saint Mary’s is no longer a seminary. The chapel which once reverberated to the sound of many young vibrant seminarians now lies silent and is rarely used.
Joe, John and Declan retrace their steps on their journey from belief to unbelief. Each man speaks of the insights, realisations and key events in their personal paths starting with each man’s sense of a call to the priesthood and religious life; entering the seminary; their challenges, questions and crises; their deeply personal and painful decisions to leave religious life; and their contented lives today as unbelievers.
Compiled and narrated by Joe Armstrong.
Production supervision by Nicoline Greer.
Sound supervision by Mark McGrath.
First broadcast on Saturday 13th October 2012, 6pm
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