DUBLIN, Ireland — When Pope Francis steps off of his chartered Alitalia flight from Rome at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, he will be walking into a country that is in some ways barely recognizable from the last time he visited the Irish Republic nearly 40 years ago.
In January 1980, the future pontiff was simply Father Jose Mario Bergoglio, a 43-year-old Jesuit priest who had come to Dublin’s Jesuit Center in the Milltown Institute to spend a few weeks learning English. The Argentine cleric’s first sojourn in Ireland came just a few months after more than a million Catholics — nearly half the population of the entire nation at the time — packed Dublin’s Phoenix Park to hear Pope John Paul II speak.
In those days, more than 95 percent of the population of Ireland was Roman Catholic, with 90 percent attending Mass at least once a week, according to census and polling data. Four decades later, Catholics comprise about 72 percent of the population, and only 18 percent attend Mass weekly.
That is, by any measure, a precipitous decline for a country that for much of the last 1,500 years, has been home to one of the most religious and most Catholic cultures on the planet.
Most will lay the blame for Ireland’s societal sea change on the scandal of pedophile priests and other atrocities of abuse perpetrated by members of the Catholic clergy, Catholic institutions, and the Church hierarchy, that have, since at least the 1990s, rocked the Catholic Church in Ireland.
Many observers expect Francis’ papal visit this weekend to be a pivotal moment for the Catholics in Ireland and beyond, even if the crowds in Phoenix Park are less than half the size of what they were in 1979. The question remains: Can he speak their language and reach the hearts and minds of a people who have been wounded gravely and often cruelly by agents of the Church? If so, will they listen and what difference will it make?
Pope Francis arrives in Dublin amid an ongoing national investigation into the deaths of 796 infants and toddlers at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway, between 1925 and 1961. Many of the children, whose deaths often were attributed to malnutrition, appear to have been buried en masse in a septic tank beneath what later became a playground.
Perhaps more than 1,000 children who were born at the home run by an order of Catholic nuns where unwed mothers were sent (often against their will) to give birth, also are believed to have been illegally trafficked to the United States and elsewhere for adoptions.
Further abuses of women and children in particular have come to light over the last 40 years, including the so-called Magdalene laundries where an estimated 30,000 Irish women were confined and forced to work as slave labor — punishment for their “crime” of having become pregnant outside of marriage. The extent of what the Magdalene women had suffered emerged in 1993 when a religious order sold the grounds of one of the former “laundries” for redevelopment, and contractors discovered 155 bodies buried in unmarked graves.
In 2013, the Irish government officially apologized to the women who had suffered physical, emotional, and sexual violence while imprisoned in the Magdalene “homes” from the late-19th century through 1996, when the last laundry was closed. (The building still stands on Sean McDermott Street in Dublin and is currently for sale.) The women often wound up imprisoned in the for-profit laundries, where they slaved away to “atone for their sins” while their children were sent away to forced adoptions, because their local priests, church and government officials, and even their own family members sent them away as punishment.
“For 90 years Ireland subjected these women, and their experience, to a profound indifference,” Enda Kenny, the Irish Taoiseach (“tee-shock”) or prime minister said through tears. “By any standards it was a cruel and pitiless Ireland, distinctly lacking in mercy.” The Irish government also established a £30m compensation plan for Magdalene survivors.
Four of the Catholic religious orders that ran Magdalene laundries in Ireland also issued apologies in 2013, but no such statement as yet has been forthcoming from the Vatican.
Many in Ireland want and expect that Pope Francis’s visit will include a public, unequivocal, and impassioned apology to the lost children of Tuam, the victims and survivors of the Magdalene laundries as well as other mother-and-baby homes, work houses, so-called “industrial” and reform schools that were little more than child jails; and the countless victim-survivors of clergy sexual abuse and other horrors perpetrated by men and women who were meant to be the emissaries of God on earth.
“This weekend is a chance for Ireland and for Pope Francis to heal broken and severed trusts, but it is going to take a drastic, repentant humility and an overt action — not just speaking truth to power, but holding that power to account in the church,” said Greg Fromholz, an American filmmaker and author who has lived in Ireland for 27 years, where he is the young adults coordinator for the Church of Ireland.
“I truly hope Pope Francis takes this moment to do and say things that will be deeply compassionate and healing for the survivors of abuse,” said Fromholz, who is serving as the performers and artists coordinator for the World Meeting of Families and the prelude and exit programs for the papal mass at Phoenix Park.
“Pope Francis is a caring and compassionate priest, and I'm sure he will address it in some way and what he says will be heard far beyond the shores of Ireland,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and an editor at America magazine who has been in Ireland this week to speak at the World Meetings of Families, which Pope Francis closes Saturday evening with a service in Dublin’s Croke Park.
“Like any such visit, he is going as a pastor,” Martin continued. “And the most important thing that any pastor can do or say is the proclamation of God's love for everyone. Beyond that, I do hope that he addresses the questions of abuse, in particular. That is a crying need. The Pope clearly will be visiting a country torn apart by abuse, and so to not address it in some way would be to fail as a pastor.”
A changed Ireland
The prevailing narrative in mainstream Irish media at the moment is that Pope Francis’ visit will pale in comparison to the historic 1979 papal visit both in size of the audience (both in person at the events in Dublin and watching at home) and the enthusiasm generally. Ireland is on a fast track to becoming a secular society not unlike Sweden, for instance, and neither the Catholic Church nor Catholic sensibilities in general hold much sway of the majority of Irish today.
Such assertions generally point to the two major political referenda — a vote in 2016 to legalize same-sex marriage and in May 2018 to legalize (and decriminalize) abortion — as evidence of such a societal shift.
“I think it's far more complicated than that: a combination of factors, not just religious ones, led to those votes,” Martin said. “So, headlines saying that ‘The Church Lost’ and so on, seem to assume that the Irish people are still somehow ‘run’ by the church, when in fact many have stopped thinking about it at all.”
Many Irish people actively are angry with the Church and, by extension, the pope, the dominant storyline in Irish newspapers and broadcast news reports says, and they will, therefore, stay home, protest Pope Francis’ visit in some other fashion, or simply ignore it altogether.
“I’m not angry in the sense of an anger that is erupting — it’s a long, slow-burning anger and it’s the same slow-burning anger that I think I share with thousands of other Irish people who are Catholic or were Catholic, who are not really ready to receive the head of the Roman Catholic church in our country,” Mary Coll, who was born in one of the notorious mother-and-baby homes in 1962 said in a televised interview with BBC News Friday morning.
“We’re still in a process of trying to work out how we are going to heal decades of damage inflicted upon us by either the institutions or their representatives,” said Moll who has two tickets to the papal mass with Pope Francis on Sunday at Phoenix Park (the same site where Pope John Paul II presided at mass in 1979), but she’s not going. Instead, she requested the tickets in the name of her birth mother and herself with the intention of sitting it out as a “dignified protest,” she said.
“We’re not ready, we’re not engaged, and the church has an awful lot of questions to answer,” Cold told BBC host Victoria Derbyshire. “It’s only been in the last week that we’ve had the revelations from Pittsburgh, and time and again, as each one of these cases break, the Catholic community — either the actively practicing community or those who were raised Catholic — are looking to Rome and say, ‘What are you going to do?’ And the answer from Rome is a deafening silence. … We don’t want ‘reflection and penance.’ We want to see people brought to the authorities, charged, and put into prison. And we want the Church to open their files, and we want an end to the church’s collusion with and protection of pedophiles.”
Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, who spoke at the World Meeting of Families on Thursday, expects Pope Francis to address the abuse head on and to apologize.
“I don’t want to in any way denigrate the pain people feel who have been abused. I think it’s important for us to be very clear about that, but I do think that it’s important to recognize that the Holy Father continues to tell us to go exactly where the wounds of Christ are and where the pain is,” Cupich told Sojourners in an interview Friday.
“In many ways we hear that in the Gospel of St. Thomas, where [Thomas] had to recognize that he could only acknowledge the Lord’s presence by touching the wounds of the body of Christ,” Cupich said. “And I think that is what we have to do as well. The Holy Father is not afraid to do that. He’s not afraid to say things such as ‘I was part of the problem’ or, ‘We need to change a culture of clericalism,’ or that ‘We cannot have coverups.’ He is willing to say those kinds of things even though they do bring us to our knees in humiliation for admitting the wrongs we’ve done. He’s not afraid.”
Don't expect a master plan for the Church
But don’t expect Pope Francis to offer a detailed, practical plan for how to move forward in Ireland or anywhere else, either.
“The pope is always full of surprises, but I also feel that nobody should expect him to put forth a full-blown plan about how we’re going to do things step-by-step to deal with the present crisis,” Cupich said. “He is a man of synodality. He is not a top-down guy. So, he wants to make sure whatever he does is done in solidarity with the other churches around the globe. I think that nobody should expect that he’s going to come out with some master plan this weekend.”
No matter what happens in Ireland this weekend, it will have repercussions around the world, and in the United States in particular, where many Catholics and others are reeling from the revelations in a 900-page grand jury report from Pennsylvania released earlier this month that catalogued unthinkable sexual abuse perpetrated by more than 300 priests against at least 1,000 children over the last 70 years.
The report implicated a number of sitting and former bishops for having knowingly protected pedophile priests, sometimes moving them from parish to parish and one Church jurisdiction to another to hide the abuse. Last week, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, D.C., who was heavily criticized in the grand jury report for his handling of clergy abuse allegations during his tenure as a bishop in Pennsylvania, withdrew from an appearance at the World Meeting of Families in Dublin, where he had been scheduled to deliver a keynote address.
“There’s a real opportunity to restore trust and to restore lives; I hope Pope Francis doesn’t squander it,” Fromholz said. “Personally, I’m truly concerned that — if it’s not already too late — if this opportunity is missed, well, you might as well just switch off the lights in the church and go home.”
What happens in Dublin this weekend, “matters not only because of the historic link between the Irish Church and the U.S. Church (for many decades Irish-American prelates more or less ran the American church), but because any papal visit is an opportunity for the entire church to get a sense of what is important to the pope, and therefore to the universal church,” Martin said.
“Also, Francis usually makes headlines as much for what he says or does in the country, as for what he says aboard the plane ride back to Rome, during his in-flight press conferences,” he said. “As a Christian I would never say that the church is ever ‘finished.’ After all, Christ himself promised that the ‘gates of hell’ would not prevail against the church, and we've been through some equally awful times in centuries past.”
There is a lot riding on Pope Francis’ visit, but that doesn’t mean it will be the ultimate defining moment for the future of the Catholic Church or for faith writ large in Ireland.
“The country really is unrecognizable from a religious point of view from the time of John Paul II’s visit, but Ireland still remains a highly religious country by western European standards,” said Gladys Ganiel, a sociologist of religion at Queen’s University in Belfast and author of the book Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland. “People here still retain a high level of faith compared to their European peers. Catholicism still has a cultural importance that can’t be underestimated.”
A recent report by the Pew Research Center said Ireland is the third most religiously observant country in the world. Perhaps this demonstrates, in part, the idea that while all religion is spirituality but not all spirituality is religion. In Ireland, Ganiel said, some of that spirituality has moved out of the parish and into “extra-institutional religion.”
“People felt they had to create or find spaces outside the traditional Irish church to practice their faith and spirituality,” she said. “I think there’s an opportunity for the institutional church, but it probably has a more limited time than they expect.”
Even if Pope Francis doesn’t live up to expectations or makes a misstep — large or small — during his 32 hours on Irish soil this week, it won’t be the death knell for Irish Catholicism.
“Could anything be worse than the way the Church has reacted to systemic abuse?” Ganiel said. “If that can’t destroy it, I don’t’ think a botched papal visit could destroy it either.”