Many ex-Catholics here weren’t even born when Pope John Paul II visited in 1979, but Irish people have a residual collective memory of the church’s role in post-independence Ireland, and are reacting viscerally against it.
Authoritarianism, clericalism, vanity, pietism, hypocrisy and pride have been the toxic mix that has devastated the church in Ireland. There will be no enormous crowds at Francis’s outdoor Masses, no gushing media coverage – and every likelihood of protest demonstrations.
Already, the “No pope here” brigade has been vocal on Twitter.
While understandable, it’s also a shame because Francis is not like his immediate predecessors. He is not into clericalism or moral rigidity. He speaks more about social justice and care for the Earth than about sex. He emphasises grace over lace, mercy over law, people over institutions.
Unfortunately, his election in 2013 came too late for the Irish church.
After almost two decades of scandals and bad press, most people had switched off or given up.
They might agree he’s a nice man, but they don’t like the institution he leads.
There is no “Francis effect” here.
Worthy of visit?
Is Francis wise to visit Ireland in 2018?
Is it worth the risk?
A better question may be, is the Irish church worthy of a visit by Francis?
His coming will show the extent of the Irish church’s decline and fall.
Constant comparisons with 1979 will be inevitable. It will trigger protests and reminders of scandals. It will provide the church’s critics with an opportunity to attack and pour scorn, in a way that only Irish ex-Catholics can. It will highlight the church’s irrelevance.
The upside is the encouragement a papal visit will give to the dwindling band of active church members around the country.
What has been extraordinary is that so many ordinary Catholics have stuck with the church despite all the times it has let them down. Even when family members and friends walked away, they stuck with it.
They chose to remain because they know that every institution is made up of broken people, and they find nourishment and support in gathering as part of a believing community to worship and pray.
The loyalty of committed Catholics deserves the reward of a papal visit.
The aged and wearied priests and religious who serve the Irish church also deserve a papal visit. Many are beyond retirement age but, due to diminishing numbers and the clustering of parishes, are now required or feel compelled to work longer and harder than when they were first ordained.
Many feel isolated, unsupported by those in authority, and worried about the future. They were ordained at a time when priests were almost universally held in high regard and the teachings of Vatican II suggested an exciting future.
Now they find themselves ashamed by the dark happenings in the church, bewildered by the speed of its collapse, and upset by the way many people perceive them.
Paucity of leadership
Our battered priests and people deserve the boost of a papal visit. The same cannot be said for our church leaders. What the scandals of recent years have shown is the paucity of leadership within the higher ranks of the Irish church.
With few exceptions, our bishops have appeared more interested in serving the institution than its members. They have been managers rather than pastors, clericalists in thrall to Rome rather than shepherds in tune with the needs of their flock.
The failure of both the bishops’ conference and the papal nuncio to engage in any meaningful way with the Association of Catholic Priests shows their disrespect for ordinary clergy and their unwillingness even to discuss pressing issues.
Perhaps it will take a papal visit for Francis and his advisers to appreciate how lacking the Irish church is in real leadership, how demoralised Irish priests and people are, and how disastrous the secretive process of appointing bishops has been.
Francis’s visit might be the catalyst for an honest facing-up to the challenges confronting the church and the reform it needs, or simply offer confirmation that it is already too late for any new springtime for the Irish church.
* Fr Gerard Moloney is a Redemptorist priest based in Limerick