In 1979, John Paul II became the first Pope to visit Ireland and the most Catholic country in the world greeted him with unmatchable excitement. Behind this response, the reality was that the Church was a dominant force determining law and social policy. Gradually, it has been revealed that the Church was responsible for and covered up an unimaginable number of clerical abuse cases in Ireland and around the world – a truth that has stained the Church’s reputation, even in one of its mother countries.

Pope John Paul II, the last Pope to visit Ireland

Forty years later, Pope Francis had arrived in a changed country, where he was greeted differently – with support, with anger and with questions. The government no longer adheres to Catholic teaching and popular reforms have passed on divorce and gay marriage, not to mention the abortion referendum in May. Meanwhile, the numbers of Irish people who believe in Catholicism is in decline, dropping from 95 to 78%; in particular more 15-34 year olds identify as atheist. During his two-day August visit, officially focussed on the family, Francis had to be both penitent and sombre, unlike his predecessor.

On his first day, Pope Francis met with figures from government and spoke at Dublin Castle. Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar frankly addressed Pope Francis, reiterating the ‘pain and suffering’ abuse victims underwent and the continuing ‘stain’ on the Irish state, society and Catholic Church. Varadkar firmly called for Pope Francis to use his influence to ensure a ‘zero tolerance’ response to abusive and complicit clergymen and lastly, for actions to follow words. The Pope responded by emphasising the ‘pain and shame’ he and the Catholic community felt for its failure to address these ‘repellent crimes’. In the moment, he pledged his greater commitment to fully ‘eliminating’ the corruption in the Church.

Varadkar’s presence and heartfelt words did seem to put in motion a ‘mature relationship’ with the Church. Representing Ireland in 2018, Varadkar critiqued outdated Catholic teachings on the family. He and his predecessors have already introduced reforms to accommodate the different forms of a modern family – without relying on Church teachings. While, Francis is seen as a comparatively progressive Pope, who is starting to reach out to gay and divorced Catholics, he held a traditional stance on the rights of the ‘unborn’ despite the recent abortion referendum. But, his focus on supporting young people, refugees, migrants, the family and the homeless was at the heart of many concerns in modern Ireland.

Varadkar’s presence and heartfelt words did seem to put in motion a ‘mature relationship’ with the Church

Pope Francis went on to meet eight abuse survivors and was met with both support and criticism. Several survivors described the Pope’s anger, comparing the cover-up to a ‘filth…’. Father McCafferty found him willing to take responsibility and determined to force the guilty to resign; he found the visit ‘momentous’, despite saying the Pope should not visit two weeks before. However, Marie Collins (former member of Pope Francis’ sexual abuse advisory panel) and Colm Gormann (Amnesty International Ireland director) were respectively ‘disappointed’ by the Church’s lack of: independent tribunals against complicit bishops, consistent public identifications of guilty clergymen or a policy to defrock those involved, rather than only forcing resignations.

There were also other critics as planned protests opposed the papal visit in Dublin especially. LGBT flags were seen flying on streetsides, representing the modern families of Ireland today championed by Varadkar. Across social media, commentators noticed the modest crowds and the Say Nope to the Pope campaign promoted unwanted ticket bookings in order to diminish the number of people attending the Festival of Families or Knock shrine events. A thousand walked to Galway, the former site of Tuam mother and baby home, which saw hundreds of child mortalities. An especially moving protest was from Savia, a group of survivors of institutional abuse, who laid out children’s shoes in black ribbon to represent the victims of abuse.

Yet in the end, the Festival of Families was a humble success; events in Croke Park and Phoenix Park attracted a maximum of 380,000 supporters despite the cloud over Ireland’s Catholic community. Each time Francis asked for forgiveness on behalf of the church, he was met with applause from the crowd. While it was not the 2.5 million seen in John Paul II’s day, a number of Irish people did support Pope Francis on their own terms.

Pope Francis’ short visit had an importance beyond the excitement of 1979

Pope Francis’ short visit had an importance beyond the excitement of 1979. He acknowledged the Church’s failings, and with demands from across Irish society, is showing some potential for action and change. As further scandals emerge internationally, there are more and more questions for Pope Francis to answer. What seems like the one unified message from the Irish people is that there needs to be clear and unified action from the Church. Since 2011, they declared bishops must report suspected abuse cases to the police – is this working? Are Church tribunals effectively dealing with cover-ups? Pope Francis did not engage with a letter received at the end of his visit from conservative archbishop Carlo Vigano to resign; are factions impeding unified action against abuse?

Lastly, what changes are needed to modernise the Church? There are also questions for the Ireland of today, one being the provision of free contraception. Meanwhile, the papal visit has clarified that Ireland must continue to both recover from its past and provide justice for every victim. Ireland, and its Catholic majority, will undeniably change more over time, and must work towards a brighter future for every family and child.

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