Papal visit could be the wake-up call the church here needs
Published 29/09/2015 | 02:30
There is a certain irony in the fact that the Catholic Church has chosen the one country in the world that collectively rejected its reductive definition of the family to host its World Meeting of Families.
But perhaps the resounding result of the same-sex marriage referendum, and its symbolism in casting off Ireland's international reputation as a devout Catholic country, is the reason the conference is coming here - an attempt at renewal.
The words "Irish" and "Catholic" were once synonymous, but the church here has latterly been riven by multiple child abuse scandals, revelations about mother-and-baby homes and society's rejection of rigid dogma in favour of secularism.
Similarly, the church in Philadelphia, where this year's conference was held, was experiencing its own crisis when the Vatican approached the archdiocese three years ago and asked it to host the event.
The city had been steeped in Catholic tradition, but the fallout from sex abuse scandals had left it with a budget deficit of $17m and $300m of debt, while two-dozen priests were under investigation and schools and churches were closing due to falling attendance.
Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles J Chaput told reporters last month that he had initially been reluctant to take on the added pressure of such a high-profile event, but said he was glad he had acceded to the request.
"The city of Philadelphia and the church in Philadelphia are major players in the story of our country," he said.
"They deserve better than the problems of the last decade and they deserve some joy. They deserve a win and a turnaround moment that renews the spirit. And I think that's why the Holy Spirit guided Pope Benedict XVI to choose Philadelphia as the place for this World Meeting of Families."
Likewise, many in the church in Ireland will be hoping the arrival of the World Meeting of Families in 2018, and the possibility of a papal visit to coincide with the conference, will provide some much-needed respite from the scandals that have plagued the church in recent years.
However, any papal visit, though welcome, will not provide a panacea for the difficulties the church is enduring in this country. That will only come when it abandons its narrow focus on contentious social issues and adopts a more pastoral focus and merciful tone.
Happily, Pope Francis, since his election in 2013, has been leading the way, articulating a vision of the church as inclusive and empathetic instead of judgmental and divisive.
While the central tenets of church teaching have not changed under this papacy, Pope Francis has succeeded in couching the intemperate language of his dour predecessor in compassion and side-stepping controversy instead of courting it.
Instead of railing against abortion during his trip to the US, Pope Francis did highlight life, but in the context of the death penalty. He also notably declined to condemn same-sex marriage, preferring to instead focus on the importance of love and support within families while highlighting the central role of children and grandparents.
He also used his public engagements to criticise society's growing materialism, decry the arms trade and its money "drenched in blood", raise concerns about climate change, call for a compassionate approach to immigration and denounce inequality and extremism.
He even found time to dispense some dating advice, telling a crowd in Philadelphia: "In Buenos Aires, how many women are telling me, 'My son is 30 or 34 years old and my son isn't getting married. What do I do?' And I say, 'Don't iron his shirts'."
Instead of merely preaching to the converted, Pope Francis seems intent on broadening the appeal of the church and comforting those lapsed Catholics who have been unable to live up to its stringent moral codes.
He is also, importantly, practising what he preaches, eschewing the extravagant displays of wealth and privilege of some of his predecessors and living a humble and modest life, typified by his decision to use a Fiat instead of a limo throughout his trip to the States.
While Pope Francis works to restore the fractured reputation of the church around the world, perhaps the hierarchy in Ireland could dispense with some of its sanctimonious craw thumping and adopt some of his conciliatory language in advance of any visit to this country.
If the Pope does come here, he will find a country that has changed utterly from the one John Paul II found nearly four decades ago, but even though the influence of the church has waned in the interim, most of those changes have been positive.
Ireland is no longer the insular, judgemental and austere country it was, but problems of poverty, homelessness and inequality persist and are areas the church could focus its attention on, instead of devoting a disproportionate amount of its time to issues of sexual morality.
No one believes the election of Pope Francis is going to lead to a revolution in its social teaching, but at least this pontiff has been eager to widen the debate beyond those divisive issues and try to re-engage those who had felt abandoned by the church.
The church in Ireland, which has in the eyes of many adopted a defensive King Canute stance to the tide of social change that it believes is threatening to sweep it away, could learn from his example.