Thoughts on the Pope’s Visit to Ireland

“A view from behind the Pope of his shirt and hat, taken in Vatican City” by Nacho Arteaga on Unsplash

So he’s come and gone already, two jam packed days of triumphant public appearances and dignified protests. You get the impression that no one knows quite what to make of it yet. We are still watching this space.

The last papal visit was thirty-nine years ago when a different pope, John Paul II, visited a vastly different land. I missed it by a hair’s breadth, my family still living in England at the time. But the papal mass in Dublin in 1979 is the stuff of Irish legend, with a staggering one million people, that’s a quarter of the population, showing up for it. This time, there were 130,000 there, despite half a million tickets being issued. Not a bad turnout, you might argue. And Francis was certainly greeted like a rock star, with numerous people waving, smiling and running alongside the Popemobile, craving to get close to him. (I witnessed a young boy being scooped up by a policeman, just in the nick of time, saved from being squished by the large, white vehicle). Francis responded in kind, waving and smiling warmly, a genuine people person if ever there was one. You can’t really blame him for the poor turnout. We live in different times with many different distractions. The Pope is like the TV having to compete with Netflix and the internet. And added to that, the weather was shite: vestments blowing in the wind and everywhere priests with innocuous looking rain jackets covering their new robes, that had been made especially for the occasion.

So, where was everyone else? Some watched from the comfort of their own sitting rooms. Thousands of others attended the protest against clerical abuse a mile or so away in Dublin city. Also calling for women priests. Also calling for the LGBTQ community to be welcomed fully by the church.

Another thousand or so gathered for a vigil in Tuam, County Galway, reciting the names and lighting candles for the 796 babies whose remains were found in the septic tanks of the mother and baby home which the Catholic Church ran until its closure in 1961. This was not the only home of its kind.

Yes, you read that right. The childrens’ remains were found in septic tanks. As in the sewrage system.

So a mixed bag, I think you’d agree. Genuine joy and a great sense of occasion experienced by many. While others remain heartbroken, still so hurt and angry from the sins and failures of the Catholic Church in Ireland. (I won’t even start on the rest of the world. You and I don’t have the time).

Pope Francis did ask for forgiveness before the mass. For the atrocities committed in this country by the creaking institution of which he’s in charge.

But he didn’t actually say sorry. Legal implications, don’t you know. The failure to directly admit to the systematic abuse, sexual and otherwise, was not so much the elephant in the room on this visit, but a giant, vicious, roaring tyrannosaurus rex. Not to mention the failure to say what he was going to do about it.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

As a young girl, I was taught that the word of the pope was infallible, meaning that what he said was not open to challenge, that the voice of God itself emanated directly from his lips. Does anyone believe this any more? Does the church itself still dare to claim it? Given its current credibility problems …

I have nothing against Francis personally. He seems like a genuine and humble man, who takes his vows of poverty refreshingly seriously. It’s his office that I, and many others, are more inclined to call into question. In this nation that recently finally and overwhelmingly voted to make it legal for women to have abortions. And for a country who was the first in Europe to vote in favour of gay marriage, by way of referendum of the people. Another landslide victory.

It appears, on balance, that we’re a people who’ve had enough of being told what to do by an anachronistic collection of old men in dresses who refuse to own up to what they’ve done and continue to protect the most heinous criminals among them.

We’re a bit funny like that.

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