FROM the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979 to the visit of Pope Francis in 2018, a period of almost 40 years, we can trace the trajectory of the stunning decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
There are many reasons for it: The general collapse of support for
institutional religion; the culture wars that ended in bitter defeats in
campaigns around contraception, divorce, same-sex marriage and,
possibly soon, abortion; the child abuse scandals and the way they were
dealt with; and, above all, a refusal or an inability to engage with the
After the extraordinary success of the 1979 visit, it seemed as if
the Catholic Church in Ireland was at the start of a new golden age.
Almost 90% of Catholics attended weekly Mass; in a country of 3.25m
people almost everyone in Ireland turned out to see the Pope, with over
1m attending the papal Mass in the Phoenix Park; and, as well as a sharp
rise in the number of babies being called “John Paul”, a temporary
arrest in the decline in vocations augured well for the future.
Ireland, for a short time, was “cool”.
What we didn’t contend with, of course, was that we were witnessing
not a beginning of something but an ending. Grainy RTÉ footage of Bishop
Eamon Casey and Fr Michael Cleary warming up young Ireland in Ballybrit
racecourse in Galway before the arrival of John Paul by helicopter soon
became a symbol of the past rather than an indicator of the future.
The gap between 1979 and 2018 is much more than 40 years. It’s
unquantifiable, a tsunami that defies description.
We live now in a
completely different Ireland inhabited by a completely different people.
What was then is not now; the old order is changed and changed utterly.
No point in ifs or buts.
No point in whistling into the wind.
in pious denial in order to rally the remnants of the loyal troop.
point in circling the wagons to keep the enemy at bay.
No point in the
finger-wagging of a John Paul, laying down the law.
The horse has
bolted. Nobody is listening anymore.
Francis brings a different perspective: Don’t judge; don’t condemn;
be merciful and compassionate; walk with and beside people; include
everyone under a great blanket of belonging; welcome everyone to the
Lord’s table; everyone is fragile; reach out to the poor; invite people
in from the margins; despise elitism and clericalism; reject the virus
of ambition; the Church of Jesus Christ is not a museum to be protected
but a field hospital for the wounded.
When Francis comes he won’t be interested in indulging the personal
ambitions of career churchmen or in meeting the Great and the Good of
Church or society. He will prefer to visit Mountjoy or Our Lady’s
Hospice in Blackrock and he won’t allow the papal cavalcade to rush past
the poor of Seán McDermott St as happened in 1979.
It isn’t just a different perspective.
Or even a different language.
It’s about tone rather than content, freedom rather than control,
respect rather than direction, love rather than law, compassion rather
than judgement, service rather than power, the loving mercy of Jesus
rather than the cold dead hand of the institution.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man?
However, the sad and difficult truth is that we’re not ready in
Ireland for the man from the pampas of Argentina or the message of mercy
and compassion that reflects the gospel Jesus preached or the
possibility that it would engage the hearts and minds of a new
generation of Catholics.
We know better than he does what’s suitable for
Ireland, cool Celtic warriors that we are. We will, of course, indulge
this old man’s strange ways for a time.
We will even pander to his
eccentricities. We will be happy to bask in his reflected popularity.
And, it goes without saying, we will canonise him when he dies.
But we know better than this deluded Pope so we’ll continue to tell
people what to do rather than to respect the primacy of people’s
consciences. We’ll hang grimly to the old traditions, dressing in fine
linen and occupying the higher seats. We’ll revert the traditional
pyramid to its old order and we’ll have no truck with anyone who wants
to invert it. We’ll retain the luxury papal quarters for his successor
and insist that his modest Fiat 500L be placed in cold storage. And, as
God is good, in due time we’ll airbrush, out of sight and out of mind,
the insight and memory of Francis the First.
The terrible tragedy is that we won’t listen because we can’t hear
what Pope Francis is saying or accept the direction in which he’s
pointing the Church.
The sad truth is that while the Church defensive is
up to its neck in denial, our people will have their tongues out for
the message Francis brings and the promise he represents — wishing it,
willing it and wanting it.
Once again, the hungry sheep look up and are
not fed. At this stage, it’s not clear what preparations will be made
for 2018, or even the schedule for the visit.
One thing we do know is
that Francis won’t be trying to replicate the John Paul visit.
two-day window is short, the focus will be on Dublin and the World
Meeting of Families, possibly with a flying visit to Armagh.
Can Francis give new hope and new energy to the Catholic Church in
Will his visit arrest the spiral of decline from 1979 to 2018?
Or will it encourage yet another re-visiting of the old, tired redundant
solutions that have been tried and found wanting time and time again?