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From 'bishops' woman' to symbol of change


The opening prayer of the World Meeting of Families at the RDS in Dublin last night. Photo: Justin Farrelly

The opening prayer of the World Meeting of Families at the RDS in Dublin last night. Photo: Justin Farrelly

The opening prayer of the World Meeting of Families at the RDS in Dublin last night. Photo: Justin Farrelly

Mary McAleese's own story reflects the vast changes that have come over Irish Catholics in the four decades between the two papal visits to Ireland.

In February 1984, just over four years after John Paul II wowed the Irish nation, Ms McAleese represented the Catholic bishops at the New Ireland Forum, convened by Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, to find ways out of the North's cycle of violence.

She was a 32-year-old lawyer and journalist, and her distinctive softly brushed-back hairstyle cut a striking feminine contrast among all the grey men.

The forum was just one of a string of committees on which she helped the Catholic hierarchy, causing her friend Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich to teasingly dub her "the bishops' woman".

Tonight on RTÉ One television, she will present a programme called 'Modern Family'. Already she has been very outspoken about Pope Francis's impending visit, urging him for weeks to meet with Irish survivors of clerical abuse.

Ms McAleese has spoken of issues like same-sex marriage, ordination of women, and the alleged airbrushing of LGBTQ families from the official documentation of the World Meeting of Families.

The blurb for tonight's programme says Ms McAleese will present a range of families. There will be a "classic Irish family" of a couple with 11 children; a family of mixed-race and mixed-faith; and a gay couple with their 18-year-old son.

It's another reminder that Irish families have changed since Pope John II visited. Irish attitudes to Church teaching have changed too.

The former president wants the Catholic Church to take these changes on board and has said Francis must change Church teaching on homosexuality as he has done earlier this month on capital punishment.

Ms McAleese has also accused the Pope of "bad manners" in failing to acknowledge a letter she sent him after she was banned from a Vatican conference.

The Pope will get a clear indication of Irish change via two short courtesy greetings from a Taoiseach who is openly gay, and a president who says he is "spiritual rather than religious".

Ms McAleese is the proud mother of a gay son and was recently honoured for her "unwavering support for the advancement of the LGBTQ community".

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Few under the age of 60 know how different Ireland was in 1979. Fianna Fáil was in power, leading our last single-party majority government, with Catholic Church policies.

To get condoms, in theory you had to be married and obtain a doctor's prescription.

Homosexuality was a criminal offence, divorce was not available, and the non-availability of abortion was about to be more tightly codified.

McAleese supporters insist that even in her "bishops' woman" days, she never blindly accepted Church dogma. Many people will recall an early clash with Archbishop Desmond Connell, because she broke Church rules by taking communion at a Church of Ireland service, and there were other instances.

But her now waning identification with the Catholic bishops does bear comparison with the generality of the population.

True, Pope Francis will pull large crowds, in a country where seven out of 10 people rate themselves as Catholics. But more and more people think differently, especially when it comes to sexual and societal mores.

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