We thank the Association of Catholic Priests for permission to reproduce this article.
From the visit of Pope John Paul 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 modern world.
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 three and a quarter million people almost everyone in Ireland turned out to see the pope, with over a million 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. Catholic 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 RTE 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. No point in pious denial in order to rally the remnants of the loyal troop. No 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 Gaol or Our Lady’s Hospice in Blackrock and he won’t allow the papal cavalcade to rush past the poor of Seán McDermott Street 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 a defensive Church 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 what the outline schedule for the visit. One thing we do know is that Francis won’t be trying to replicate the John Paul visit. The two-day window is short, the focus will be on Dublin and the World Meeting of Families, possibly with a flying visit to Armagh. So there won’t be another papal visit to Knock.
Can Francis give new hope and new energy to the Catholic Church in Ireland?
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?