When Pope Benedict XVI landed in Scotland at the start of his visit to the UK in 2010, members of his entourage on board the papal plane were jittery. There had been protests about Benedict’s visit in the run-up to his arrival, from people angered by the cost to the taxpayer and by the Catholic Church’s track record on abuse. But as his motorcade swept into Edinburgh en route to meet the Queen at Holyrood, there was a sigh of relief. People were out in force on the route into the capital city, not protesting but waving.
On Saturday Pope Francis will also arrive by plane, this time in Ireland, for a whirlwind trip to what was once one of the Catholic Church’s greatest strongholds in Europe. If Vatican officials were a trifle nervous about secular Britain’s welcome to a Pope, they must surely be quaking now. For once-Catholic Ireland has been transformed in the past 40 years, embracing divorce, contraception, same-sex marriage, and most recently reform to allow limited legalisation of abortion.
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It was once very different. When John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979, more than half the population came out to greet him. The churches were packed. Seminaries boomed; Ireland still had so many priests that they were a major export to both the developing world and to the far smaller Catholic community in Britain.
That has changed: in 1979, 93% of the population identified as Catholic, but by 2016, according to the census, that figure was just 78%. Two surveys, one in 2006 and one in 2012, found just 35% attend Mass weekly.
As the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin said, when details of Pope Francis’ visit were first announced, the trip is happening “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”.
Part of that culture change is due to the scandals that have beset the Catholic Church in Ireland in recent years and their heavy shadows hang over Pope Francis’ visit. There has been revelation after revelation that tested so many people’s faith: of terrible cruelty to vulnerable women in the Magdalene laundries, sent there because they became pregnant out of wedlock; forced adoptions of children of unmarried mothers; the scandal of sexual abuse of children by priests and its consequent cover-ups.
It is no wonder then that this stain on the Church’s reputation is one of the biggest issues on people’s agenda for the papal visit, according to recent research by the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) in Ireland. And after similarly dreadful clerical abuse scandals elsewhere coming to light in the run-up to the visit, it became inevitable that Francis would have to meet abuse survivors during his 36-hour trip. (This meeting was only announced on Tuesday.)
The ACP survey also indicates what a chasm has opened up in Ireland between the hierarchy and Mass-goers. They have had enough of the clerical culture – the way in which many priests and bishops see themselves as a special, privileged caste with a sacred status bestowed on them at ordination. And despite the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which confirmed all the baptised as the people of God, participating in the mission of the Church, the laity often feel they are treated as if they are at the bottom of the ecclesiastical ladder.
But the greatest priority among those surveyed is a role for women in a patriarchal Church that is lagging behind other Christian denominations in using their talents and experience by maintaining a male-only priesthood.
And yet Ireland hasn’t entirely given up on the Church. Cultural and sentimental attachment means Catholics still turn to it for rites of passage: for baptisms, for weddings and for funerals. First Holy Communions, complete with parties, costly designer dresses, and purring limos, are still huge family occasions.
No wonder, then, that despite complaining about clerical culture, Irish people I’ve spoken to –some ‘cultural Catholics’ as well as regular Mass-goers – also fret about a shortage of pastors who can give them spiritual succour. With just one seminary left in Ireland and most priests over the age of 60, the unthinkable might happen: churches may close.
No doubt aware of how much Francis needs to reach out to Ireland, Vatican officials are risking the possibility of protests, or disinterest, and adding to his itinerary a drive through Dublin in his Popemobile. Those officials must be pinning their hopes on Francis’ undoubted charisma, though even that no longer works the wonders it used to, due to what is increasingly seen as lack of action on abuse, and doubts that Francis does not fully understand the depths of distress the scandal is causing.
But if the Church is to not just survive, but thrive, in Ireland, he will need to quickly understand how much it has changed since he lived there himself, studying English, in 1980. Nothing will make that so apparent as his brief meeting with the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, an openly gay man at the helm of a nation that voted for same-sex marriage.
Pope Francis, once asked about gay people, famously replied “Who am I to judge?” Newly confident Ireland, which no longer perceives Catholicism as integral to its national identity, has in recent years judged its own bishops to be wanting. This may well be the moment when it judges Pope Francis too.
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