By Clodagh Kilcoyne
KNOCK, Ireland (Reuters) - Bernie and Tom Byrne can barely conceal their excitement as they prepare for a visit to Ireland by Pope Francis that they hope will bring back the young believers that have deserted the Catholic church after decades of scandal.
Their grandfather Dominic was one of at least twenty-two people that claimed to see Mary, Joseph and John the Evangelist hovering near the gable end of the local church in the western Irish village of Knock on a rainy evening in August 1879.
Francis will pray at the Knock shrine as part of his two-day visit to Ireland this week, the first by a Pope in almost 40 years that have transformed the once staunchly Catholic country into a far more secular and liberal society. https://tmsnrt.rs/2N95yFI
"Houses are being painted and streets are being scrubbed... trying to get everything ready for him, even though it's only a short visit," said Bernie, 74, who like his brother Tom, runs a small shop selling religious goods to the 1.5 million pilgrims that come to Knock each year.
"Because he is such a humble man, and a nice man, everybody is dying to have a look at him."
Religion is still deeply embedded in the face of the Irish countryside - roadside grottos with statues of the Virgin Mary are a feature of almost every Irish town and village, with most erected in 1954 when the Vatican called for a Marian year of celebration and devotion.
Like many practicing Catholics across the country, the Byrne brothers hope the papal visit will bring back those that abandoned the church after its standing and influence collapsed over a string of clerical child sex abuse scandals.
"A lot of the youngsters are not going to church now at all, with all the scandal," said Tom.
"The church would have to change to accommodate younger people. Possibly, more than likely, they will have to ordain women priests because they have no priests at the moment to succeed the older priests that are here."
Pope Francis will be the second pope to visit Knock after Pope John Paul II said mass to a crowd of around 450,000 there in 1979. Organisers are expecting a crowd of around 45,000 for Francis.
The proportion of Catholics fell to 78 percent in the most recent census of 2016 from a peak of 95 percent in 1961. Many of those no longer practise, as seen by dwindling mass attendances and the fact that only half of all marriages last year were Catholic ceremonies compared to over 90 percent 20 years ago.
Still, another 500,000 people are expected to watch Pope Francis say mass in Dublin's Phoenix Park on Sunday, including Joe Towell who remembers the "euphoric" scenes in the park 39 years ago when Pope John Paul II prayed there.
Towell, 68, lives with his mother by the nearby O'Devaney gardens flats where he tends to the 1950's complex's statue of Mary. While some locals' cars have been stolen and homes broken into, nobody touches Mary, he says.
Excited about the visit of "another extraordinary type of pope", he sees Francis as bridging a generational gap that has opened between the conservative and liberal wings of the church.
"He's still preaching the same gospel as they've all been preaching. He's just got a little more understanding of the present way people are feeling," Towell said.
For other Catholics, the visit provides a boost to the faithful who are struggling with a social landscape changed beyond recognition by votes in recent years to remove constitutional blocks to abortion and gay marriage.
Ireland became the first country to adopt same-sex marriage by popular vote in a landslide 2015 referendum and last year ended one of the world's strictest abortion regimes by an even larger majority of 66 percent.
"A lot of Catholics have gone a-la-carte, but being Catholic is very serious," said Marie Campbell, who joined thousands of pilgrims who scale Croagh Patrick in the western County Mayo every July in honour of Saint Patrick, Ireland's patron saint.
"Our Catholic faith stands for life. It's the very centre of being Catholic. We cherish life, life is sacred, and a lot of Catholics need to be reminded of these things."
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(Writing by Graham Fahy, editing by Padraic Halpin and Alexandra Hudson)