No red-letter day in Croker as Pope skirts issue of abuse
THE crowd surged to its collective feet for a standing ovation. It wasn't the first noisy acclaim to ring to the rafters of Croke Park, but it certainly was the first of its kind.
The cheers from the 70,000-plus audience weren't for the heroic exploits of a hurler, a footballer, a rugby team, or even a rock band, but for the Pope.
The papal address by Pope Benedict was billed as the highlight of the Statio Orbis Mass, which itself was the climactic end to the week-long Eucharistic Congress -- the triumphant set-piece, a four-hour musical and liturgical celebration to confirm that a renewal of the battered Catholic Church in Ireland was officially under way.
Just before 5pm, the Pope appeared on the giant screens, which flanked the towering altar.
The 85-year-old Pontiff looked frail, and his strongly accented voice was at times almost incomprehensible, which made the subtitles that ran at the bottom of the screen a necessity.
Silence fell in the stadium -- Croker is already our hallowed ground, the national theatre of dreams, which has been the stage for so many historic moments, sporting and political.
'God Save the Queen' being sung at the ground zero of Bloody Sunday, the queen herself stepping onto the turf a year ago, the last-gasp boot of the ball by goalie Stephen Cluxton to bring Sam back to the Dubs on a tumultuous Sunday last September -- so many dramatic moments suspended in the amber of history.
Perhaps another red-letter event in Croker now beckoned, when the head of the Catholic Church would offer a clear, humble and heartfelt apology to the legions of survivors of clerical abuse which blighted the lives of Irish men, women and children over decades.
Perhaps he would apologise for the hurt and pain, for the callous cover-ups by the hierarchy, for the obfuscation and silence that greeted those who sought justice for those who suffered at the hands of priests.
But no such historic day was to dawn in Croke Park yesterday.
In an eight-minute speech, Pope Benedict dealt with this enormous crisis in five sentences.
He spoke of "the revelation of sins committed by priests and consecrated persons against people entrusted to their care.
"Instead of showing them the path towards Christ, towards God, instead of bearing witness to his goodness, they abused people and undermined the credibility of the church's message," he said.
Perhaps the Pontiff had hoped that the word "people" sounded better than "children".
Then he posed the question asked by so many, over and over -- why did they offend in this way?
"It remains a mystery," he concluded.
Well no, there's no mystery about it, really -- they offended because nobody in a position of power, like, say, a Pope, shouted stop until it was too late.
But the 70,000 faithful packed into the stadium weren't in the mood to take issue with the Holy Father, and they rose to their feet and clapped and cheered as he gave the huge congregation his blessing.
And the most exuberant of all were the large contingent of Filipino pilgrims, overjoyed at Pope Benedict's announcement that the next Eucharistic Congress would take place in the Philippines in 2016.
The mood of the assembled multitudes had been sunny all day -- and so too largely had been the weather, with only the occasional brief shower sending rows of bishops and cardinals scrambling to don their plastic ponchos.
And the event had been organised with meticulous precision, with great attention to detail.
There were even warnings posted on the screen beforehand, which requested: "Please do not dip the Sacred Host into these chalices as they will be no longer safe to offer to those with a gluten intolerance."
Moreover, a figure of a priest either standing or kneeling was flashed onto the screens at key moments during the Mass, so the pilgrims could do likewise.
The 90-minute long 'Gathering' before the Mass was hosted by RTE's Eileen Dunne and Joe Duffy (despite the banner of one protester outside the Hogan Stand, which proclaimed 'RTE is Anti-Catholic').
It was a smorgasbord of music by a wide array of performers, from the Three Tenors who sang 'You Raise Me Up' (coincidentally, Westlife, the lads who took the song to number one in the charts, are playing Croker this weekend), to Daniel O'Donnell and soprano Celine Byrne.
And to the background of John McCormack's rendition of 'Panis Angelicus' at the last Eucharistic Congress held in Dublin in 1932, black-and-white footage of that event played out on the screens.
The images showed the jaw-dropping, mammoth crowds that turned out 80 years ago in the Phoenix Park, that lined the streets of the city and swarmed to greet the Papal Legate when he arrived by ferry into Dun Laoghaire.
He may not have been greeted by such immense numbers, but the Papal Legate and principal celebrant of the mass, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, was upbeat in his homily, and heaped praise on his hosts.
"I greet the President of Ireland, and all the civil authorities, fondly aware of the noble tradition of this courageous nation," he said. "I thank wholeheartedly Archbishop Martin, Cardinal Brady and all the collaborators of this event for the gift of their warm hospitality and for the example of their strong dedication to Christian renewal in this country," he added, to applause.
And he earned himself more applause when he reminded the congregation of the Pope's message, which would be screened at the end of the Mass.
"Let us listen to him with great respect and gratitude since he is our spiritual father, a father who is holy and worthy of our trust and sincere obedience," he said.
And the Pope would surely have been gratified by the reception to his speech, even though it was utterly devoid of contrition.
Fr Kevin Doran, the secretary general of the congress, had an explanation, pointing out that the Pope "didn't mention it specifically in his address but he has done so on a number of occasions, including in connection with the preparation for the congress".
It fell to Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, to bring down the curtain on the 50th Eucharistic Congress.
"One week ago, we set out on a journey of prayer and reflection, of song and silence, of renewal of our hearts and renewal of our church," he said.
"In these eight days, the Eucharist has awakened in our hearts something which went way beyond our plans and expectations."
It was understandable that he was delighted. The attendance was modest enough as the week began, but the crowds swelled in size as the week progressed.
Nor were there any major protests to disrupt proceedings.
But why didn't Pope Benedict seize the opportunity to kick-start the much-heralded renewal by bowing to his church's dark past?
Why did he cop-out in Croker?
To quote the Pontiff himself, it remains a mystery.