What Pope Francis faces in Ireland
Pope Francis’ two-day visit to Ireland this weekend has raised great expectations among the people of this small, divided island and is being watched worldwide, but it will not be an easy trip for the pope. It can be viewed as a visit in two parts.
Its first and primary purpose is to participate in the closing phase of the ninth World Meeting of Families in Dublin; the second but no less important goal is to meet the Irish people who have been so grievously wounded by the sexual abuse of minors and other related scandals over decades.
Church bells throughout the Emerald Isle will ring out in welcome as the pope’s plane touches down at Dublin Airport on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. local time. Last Tuesday, in a video message ahead of his visit that was carried by the Irish media, Pope Francis extended “a warm word of greeting to all the Irish people” and told them, “I am excited at the thought of returning to Ireland!”
Indeed, this is his second visit to the country; he came here first to Dublin to study English for just under two months in early 1980, after completing his service as Jesuit provincial of Argentina, and stayed with the Jesuit community at Milltown Park. Now he returns as pope.
He knows much about Irish culture and history since 600,000 Argentinians are of Irish descent, and he has also worked closely with an Irish Jesuit in Buenos Aires. He is happy to come, and he is sure to receive a warm welcome, according to sources in Ireland.
Francis will be the second pope to visit Ireland, once known as “the island of saints and scholars.” St. John Paul II came here in 1979, and an estimated one-third of the Irish population attended his various public events as he strongly reaffirmed the country’s traditional Catholicism.
Francis’ visit, however, is much shorter. He comes to a country that has changed economically and socially in very significant ways over the past 40 years, and he comes “as the church in Ireland struggles to find a new place in Irish society and culture—a very different one from the dominant one it held in the past,” as Dublin’s archbishop, Diarmuid Martin, said in the announcement of the pope’s schedule last Monday.
Some 10 percent of the island’s population of 7 million are expected to attend the pope’s events, a significant number considering that security and safety regulations are far more stringent today than 40 years ago. One cannot simply turn up for events as one could in those days when the Polish pope came to Ireland.
After a welcome ceremony at the airport, the pope will travel to Áras an Uachtaráin, the residence of the president of the Republic of Ireland, where he will be welcomed by President Michael D. Higgins. They have met before and get on well.
After a private conversation with the president, Pope Francis will travel to Dublin Castle, once the seat of the British administration, where he will be greeted by Prime Minister Leo Eric Varadkar, an openly gay man of Irish and Indian descent. Mr. Varadkar was baptized and brought up Catholic but ceased to practice because he could not accept the church’s teachings on a number of issues. He will formally welcome the pope, and there is much interest in what he may say to him.
The scandals began to be revealed by the Irish media in the 1990s and have continued since.
At Dublin Castle, Pope Francis will deliver his first major talk of the trip when he addresses some 250 members of the country’s civic and religious authorities and the diplomatic corps. He is expected to speak explicitly about the abuse scandal that has shocked this overwhelmingly Catholic population and brought this once powerful and authoritarian Irish church to its knees.
The scandals began to be revealed by the Irish media in the 1990s and have continued since. They include not just cases of priests who have fathered children but remained active in the ministry but also countless cases of the abuse of children, minors and vulnerable persons by priests and religious. Part of the scandal, of course, has been the cover-up of these crimes by bishops and religious superiors that helped compel a number of government investigations.
The scandals also included the abuses of girls and young women in the Magdalene laundries and a more recent scandal of a “mother and baby home” in Tuam, County Galway, where some 800 young children died in the early to mid-20th century. A still-unknown number of them were apparently buried in unmarked graves at an abandoned septic site.
In 2011, the historical abuse of minors and the Vatican’s failure to cooperate with state investigations led the Irish government to close its embassy to the Holy See. It reopened three years ago.
These scandals were always seen as part of the background to Pope Francis’ visit, but media floodlights were unexpectedly thrown on those issues again after the publication of the Pennsylvania grand jury report that was widely covered in Irish media and the scandal surrounding former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
Irish state television also recently broadcast the film “Spotlight,” which dramatized the abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese, and the Irish media gave much coverage to several well-known Irish survivors of abuse who are now calling for “action not words” from the Holy See. The coverage of the abuse crises has largely eclipsed the World Meeting of Families itself, and its related events in cathedrals and churches around the country have received little media coverage.
During his visit, Pope Francis is sure to comment on the ongoing peace process in Northern Ireland. Since 1922, Ireland has been partitioned between Northern Ireland, part of Great Britain, and the independent republic in the South. The North has suffered from much from violent conflict in the 20th century, but “the Troubles” were mercifully—if at times tentatively—brought to an end by the Good Friday peace accord some 20 years ago.
The ongoing effort to consolidate peace and achieve reconciliation has not been easy, and even today Northern Ireland is struggling to form a government. A delegation from Northern Ireland will be present in Dublin Castle when Pope Francis speaks, and he is likely to greet them and encourage efforts for peace. Delegates from other Christian churches in Ireland will also be present.
While the country has been partitioned for almost 100 years, the Catholic church in Ireland has remained a single ecclesiastical unit of four archdioceses and 26 dioceses; the primatial see of Armagh is in Northern Ireland. All the country’s bishops—56 as of December 2017—will be present in Dublin Castle, but Pope Francis will also have a private meeting with them on Sunday. Also present will be Ireland’s lone cardinal—Seán O’Brady—who voted in the 2013 conclave that elected the pope but whose resignation Francis accepted upon his turning 75 because of Cardinal O’Brady’s role in the mishandling of abuse allegations.
The ongoing effort to consolidate peace and achieve reconciliation has not been easy, and even today Northern Ireland is struggling to form a government.
In his talk to the Irish bishops on Sunday evening before leaving for Rome, Francis is likely not only to address the abuse scandals but also to encourage the bishops’ efforts at rebuilding the Irish church and re-evangelizing its people. In recent years Irish citizens not only voted in favor of same-sex marriage, they also endorsed the repeal of a constitutional amendment that effectively outlawed abortion. As elsewhere in Europe, Ireland has succumbed to secularization.
The pope is no doubt aware, however, that the religious situation in Ireland remains complex. Despite the scandals, the cover-ups of abuse, the loss of faith in church leadership, and corruption at high levels in the political and economic levels of the Republic, according to the 2016 census, 78.3 percent of the population identify themselves as Catholic. A recent European Social Survey of 18 countries that same year reports that 36 percent of Irish Catholics attended a religious service at least once a week. That compared with only 12.8 percent in other European countries (with the exception of Poland).
Pope Francis will encounter other dimensions of the Irish reality when he visits St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral on Saturday, later that day when he goes to the Capuchin Day Centre for Homeless People in Dublin, and when he prays at the Marian shrine in Knock in the west of Ireland.
At the Capuchin center, he will meet 70 of the 200 to 300 people who visit every day for meals. In this city of 1.4 million, where many are quite well-off and property prices are sky high, there remain many poor and homeless people.
On Sunday morning Pope Francis will take a 40-minute plane ride to the Marian shrine in Knock, where some 40,000 people from the western part of the country, where Catholicism is still strong, will be present to greet him. Many more wanted to come, but they could not get tickets.
Our Lady is believed to have appeared at this site in the small country village of Knock in 1879, a year of misery and famine in most of rural Ireland; she was accompanied by St. Joseph and St. John the Evangelist. Since then millions of pilgrims, including countless sick people, from all over the country and other lands have come to pray at this shrine where miraculous cures, healings and other graces have been reported.
Pope Francis will take a 40-minute plane ride to the Marian shrine in Knock, where some 40,000 people from the western part of the country, where Catholicism is still strong, will be present to greet him.
Francis specifically asked to come here. He will speak after praying in silence, and his words will no doubt be listened to attentively.
The primary purpose of his visit to Dublin, however, is to participate in the ninth World Meeting of Families. The host of that meeting, Diarmuid Martin, the city’s archbishop and a former Vatican official who is the acknowledged leader of the Irish church in dealing with the abuse scandals, has revealed that it was Francis himself who asked that the W.M.O.F. be held in Ireland.
Some 30,000 people, including 11,000 visitors from 103 countries, have traveled to Dublin to participate in the various W.M.O.F. events, at which many cardinals—including Blase Cupich and Joseph Tobin from the United States—bishops and lay leaders are speaking and taking part in numerous meetings, events and liturgies. America’s James Martin, S.J., was one of the invited speakers, and he addressed a capacity audience of 1,200 people on Thursday on how the church should welcome L.G.B.T. people, and later spent three hours signing his book on the subject.
This world meeting in Ireland has focused on Pope Francis’s exhortation on the family, “Amoris Laetitia.” The event has sought to deepen participants’ understanding of a magisterial document now at the heart of the church’s understanding and teaching on the family in the 21st century, as the Dublin-born Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the newly formed Vatican dicastery for The Laity, Family and Life, explained earlier in the year.
On Saturday evening, Pope Francis will participate in the W.M.O.F.’s festival of families in Croke Park sports stadium, where he will offer the second major address of his visit. Some 70,000 people are expected to be present at the evening’s event, which will involve a celebration of traditional Irish culture and spirituality and include the presentation of testimonies by representatives of families from all continents. There is great interest in what Francis will say then.
It should be noted, however, that the world meeting has not just been confined to Dublin. Bishops and clergy in dioceses throughout the country have engaged in a long preparation for this event and for Pope Francis’ visit. Earlier this week events and community prayer services or other liturgies were held in churches across Ireland, at which vast numbers of the faithful participated. In Carlow, for example, the cathedral could not host the number of people who attended; the same was true in other places.
On Sunday afternoon, after returning from Knock, Pope Francis will celebrate an open-air Mass for some 600,000 people in Phoenix Park, the largest enclosed park in Europe. He will deliver a homily that will seek to reach the hearts of the Irish people.