Anyone who’s ever spent time in Dublin understands that its weather, much like in every other place, is composed of four seasons: autumn, winter, spring and summer. The difference here, however, is that one often gets all four in the same day.
That means that when Pope Francis arrives in the Irish capital on Saturday for a 32-hour visit to close the World Meeting of Families, all four seasons will be awaiting him. Alas, under the circumstances, that won’t be just a meteorological challenge the pontiff will have to face, but a cultural and ecclesiological one too.
Summer: the clerical sexual abuse crisis
Although many countries around the world have faced the scorching summer heat of the clerical sexual abuse crisis, Ireland is arguably unique in the depth and scale of its experience, because of how pervasive the reach of the Church here has been.
Recent scandals in Chile and in the United States, which have occupied front pages for months, have stirred it all up again here.
“It’s not so much that crimes were committed,” a taxi driver told Crux on Thursday, speaking about why he’s not going to be attending any papal events.
“They’re unforgivable, yes, but the Church is composed of human beings. It’s that they covered up. And as we learned in Pennsylvania, they’re still covering it all up.”
The driver was referring to a grand jury report released last week, focusing on six dioceses in Pennsylvania, which found some 300 priests had abused more than 1,000 children over a span of seven decades.
In addition, there’s also the unfolding crisis in the Chilean Church, where every bishop has handed their resignation to Pope Francis after he summoned them to Rome and told them he had evidence some were guilty of cover-up, including destroying evidence.
Also making shockwaves has been the recent resignation from the College of Cardinals of American Theodore McCarrick after credible allegations were made that he had abused at least one minor. Since then, allegations of abusing at least a second minor and also many seminarians throughout his career have surfaced.
These and other experiences have led the taxi driver, and his entire family, to shun the papal visit.
“I’m still Catholic, I still have my faith, my Holy Water and Our Mother of Fatima guards me while I’m working, but I can’t say I have much faith left in the Church,” he said.
In addition, he said, many in Ireland don’t know Pope Francis and don’t relate to him as they did Pope John Paul II, the last pope to visit the Emerald Isle: “Many today are trying to say that he knew about the scandals. But I tell you, if he came today, he’d draw the same crowd he did in 1979.”
According to Baroness Nuala O’Loan, former Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland and a member of the House of Lords, the abuse scandals have “fractured trust at all levels: The faithful don’t trust priests, priests don’t trust bishops, and bishops don’t trust the Vatican.”
“There’s that common acceptance that the institutional Church has been found to be dysfunctional, but also that it hasn’t acted as it should have, which is much more than dysfunctional: it’s acted in a corrupt way,” she said.
Ahead of the trip, Francis wrote a letter dedicated to the People of God in which he acknowledged that the Church has failed to protect children and promised accountability. However, the letter sparked blowback because he didn’t offer any concrete solutions.
The pope will meet with survivors of clerical sexual abuse while in Ireland, and he’s expected to address the issue publicly. When he chooses to do so and what he says, however, will set the tone.
Autumn: popular reaction
Popular reaction is expected to be, much like autumn’s colors, a bit amber, reflecting perhaps the “Church that was.”
Although thousands are projected to throng the streets of Dublin as the popemobile passes by, and although tickets for all major events were gone days after being made available, there are also people who feel ashamed even for expressing enthusiasm that the pope is coming.
Ahead of the visit, there was a campaign to scoop up tickets - which are free but limited - and sabotage events by leaving the sites empty.
Victoria White, who in the Irish Examiner described herself as “not Catholic,” claimed that there’s an organized “mob” against the visit.
“I am horrified by the howling mob which has come out against the visit of Pope Francis to our country,” she wrote. “It is a mob, make no mistake about it.”
“The formation of the mob is not surprising, given that I have heard established commentators across the mainstream media… speak in a way to my mind grossly insults Catholics,” she continued, saying that she will be taking her children to the pope’s Mass.
“The pope is not my spiritual leader, but he is an elderly and seemingly kindly man who has written passionately about climate change and greeted Syrian refugees with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch. I am not a Catholic, but I’m Irish and the Céad míle fáilte [“a 100,000 welcomes”] is my religion,” White wrote.
As Francis says Mass in Phoenix Park on Sunday, thousands are expected to attend a clerical sexual abuse survivors solidarity event that will take place at the Garden of Remembrance. The “Stand for Truth” rally will begin at the same time as the Mass.
Organizers say that it’s for anyone who has “been harmed or abused” by the Church, and for those who wish to stand in solidarity with those harmed.
The crowds expected to come out to see Francis are projected to be much lower than the ones that welcomed his predecessor, when observers believe literally half of the country came out to at least wave at the popemobile.
Some of this numeric difference will be due to the generalized apathy to the visit in some quarters, evidenced for instance by the lack of interest in papal paraphernalia, but due also to safety regulations. The closing Mass on Sunday will be in Phoenix Park, where John Paul’s was. Civil authorities put a cap of half-million attendees, while 39 years ago, with no such regulations, over a million people attended.
In addition, there’s no disguising the disappointment among many Catholics in Northern Ireland coming on Saturday who will have seen a pope set foot in the British Isles four times, but never in Armagh or Belfast.
When Pope John Paul II came to Ireland, mostly Protestant Unionists were fighting mostly Catholic Nationalists, and the pope was not welcomed by the Protestant majority. Today, though some of that tension remains, leaders of the four main churches, Catholic and Protestant, came together to invite Francis.
Despite the disappointment, many Catholics in Northern Ireland are excited about the visit and expected to travel in thousands to either Dublin or the Marian Shrine of Knock, where Francis will be on Sunday.
Winter: The rapid secularization of the Emerald Island
In 1979, Sunday Mass was a given for virtually everyone in Ireland. The country was also much poorer then, with living standards well below those in Europe. Divorce, homosexual relations and abortion were all banned, in no small part due to the Catholic Church.
Since then, abuse scandals, financial mismanagement, stories of babies being ripped from the hands of vulnerable mothers by nuns and other awful abuses, not to mention rapid economic development, have hastened a blooming of secular modernity.
Francis will land in an Ireland where divorce rates are up, gay marriage was legalized through a referendum, the Irish prime minister is the country’s first openly gay head of government, and a second referendum, in May of this year, resulted in repealing a constitutional amendment that banned abortion. All three of these made possible in part with the vote of thousands of Catholics.
Weekend Mass attendance has gone from 90 percent four decades ago to 30 percent now.
In addition, Ireland went from being a hotbed of missionary priests to becoming mission territory itself: The national Maynooth seminary, built to train 500 seminarians a year and which was once among the largest seminaries in the world, had only six first year seminarians in 2017.
Columnist Shane Coleman from the Irish Independent, argued on Wednesday that the Ireland Francis will visit is “unrecognizable” to the one the Polish pontiff set foot in.
“With our unique ability to swing from one extreme to another, we have gone from unquestioning obedience and devotion to total intolerance of anything pertaining to Catholicism,” Coleman wrote, noting that the Catholic Church in the country is working on becoming “once again, a force of good,” but that this will require goodwill from outside the Church.
Speaking with Crux before the papal visit, Irish-born Bishop Paul Tighe, who’s been working in Rome for the past decade, said that the change since he’s been gone is noticeable, even in the “deep rural part of Ireland.”
“Even in areas that would traditionally have higher Mass attendance, the priests there tell me that it’s going down,” Tighe said. “And it’s not simply ideological. In some cases, people have busy lives and the Church is just not that relevant anymore.”
“Some 40 years ago in Ireland, the tide brought people into Church. Today, being in the Church means going against the tide,” he added.
It’s worth noting that secularization, though rapid in the past few years, began before John Paul II. As Irish-born Bishop David O’Connell, auxiliary of Los Angeles, told Crux, in 1979 “We thought this [visit] would be a revival of the Catholic Church in Ireland, which even at that time we needed.”
“Even though the faith and practice were very strong, among many of my peers, my generation was already turning away from the Catholic faith even in the 1970s,” O’Connell said. “We were hoping for a revival, and we thought that there would be one.”
Spring: the visit might provide enough light for a new bloom
When Pope Francis gets on his plane back to Rome Sunday afternoon, it’s plausible that the visit will have experienced three of the four seasons, with spring remaining the big question mark: Will he be able to address the crisis in a satisfactory way and touch the heart of those who are on the fence?
If so, will the local Catholic Church be able to capitalize on the visit? Some hope so.
“I suppose that after the events of the last couple of weeks, everybody is a bit down, everybody is a bit nervous, a bit anxious, if we’re to be honest,” Tighe said. “And one is hoping that in the middle of it all, the pope, particularly his clarity, his desire to share the love of God and his love with people, will continue to resonate, touch hearts and give hope.”
His hope is that Francis will be able to “spark” in the Irish people a “culture of encounter,” that for Christians is born from encountering Christ.
“I hope that maybe those who are here or who are coming from all parts of the world see it as something that is coming not from a crisis manager but from a man of God who will be taking his strength from Christ, hoping that everyone can find that same strength in Christ too,” Tighe said.