Saturday 16 December 2017

Ecstatic welcome for charismatic John Paul II

Almost three million people turned out to greet the Pope on his hectic travels through Ireland. But the scenes of joy turned out to be a false dawn for the Church

Pope John Paul II during his visit to Ireland in September 1979. Photo: Anwar Hussein
Pope John Paul II during his visit to Ireland in September 1979. Photo: Anwar Hussein
A pilgrim with an official pass for the area reserved for ‘'invalids and sick' at the Phoenix Park Mass. Photo: Tim Graham
Crowds struggle through heavy rain after attending Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II on September 29, 1979. Photo: Tim Graham
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

As Pope John Paul II flew out of Ireland at the start of October 1979 after a triumphant visit, the Irish Independent was unstinting in its praise.

The paper described him as "the man who smiled and even wept as he encountered the tremendous wave of affection which flowed out from the people to him".

The Pope, according to the paper's editorial, was "the man who aroused their emotions, who had overjoyed them with his presence and who had appealed to them in every sentence he used".

At the end of his visit, the Pontiff could confidently utter the Latin phrase "Semper fidelis" - Always faithful.

Almost three million people turned out to greet him on his hectic travels through Ireland, taking in events in the Phoenix Park, Drogheda, Galway, Knock and Limerick. The Pope and his bishops had every reason to believe that the Irish people would always be faithful, standing proudly apart from our European neighbours.

In 1979, weekly church attendance rates were still remarkably high by European standards at over 80pc, and were to remain so for another decade at least.

In Galway on the Sunday of John Paul II's trip, tens of thousands of young people chanted "We love the Pope". As the Irish Independent reported, at one point "the swaying and ecstatic gathering broke into song with 'He's Got the Whole World in His Hands', symbolising their feelings of love of Christ's Vicar on earth".

The song title was used as the banner headline across the front page of the Irish Independent on the following day, summing up perfectly the rapturous mood of the visit.

Mark Patrick Hederman, now Abbot of Glenstal, was there during the Galway Mass and likened the atmosphere to that of a rock concert.

Brother Hederman said that John Paul II was nothing short of a "megastar" at the time.

The mere presence of a pope in Ireland, the first and only time it happened, was bound to draw vast crowds. But Pope John Paul II had a charisma that has not been matched by a religious figure in the modern era.

As much as Bono, Mick Jagger in his prime, or any rock star, he knew how to work a crowd, and that was most evident in Galway as he delivered his homily in his resonant baritone voice.

"Young people of Ireland, I love you," he declared, and then stood for four minutes soaking up the applause, raising his hands and waving in a circular motion.

It was like one those moments in a rock concert, when the performer gets the crowd to perform.

The Irish Independent report picked up on the music festival atmosphere in its report: "Woodstock, the Isle of Wight and all the Ballisodares one could imagine could not give the right impression of volume and enthusiasm in Ballybrit yesterday."

Looking back on those days, Brother Hederman pointed to a quote of Orson Welles to highlight the then Pope's star quality.

When asked what he thought about having an actor, Ronald Reagan, as President of the US, Welles remarked: "It seems to be working in the Vatican."

There were similar scenes of rapture on the day before the Galway Mass in the Phoenix Park, as the Pope's helicopter circled above a crowd of 1.3 million. The serried masses seemed to sway in a state of euphoria, singing and waving yellow flags. It was the largest gathering in Irish history.

With the enormous crowds during the visit, the Church might have hoped that its position in Irish society would be reinforced.

At the time, Church teaching was powerful enough to ensure that certain key doctrines dominated the political sphere. Seven years after the visit, traditionalists wielded their power by ensuring that attempts to introduce divorce were defeated in a referendum. In 1983, they also introduced the eighth amendment to the constitution, banning abortion.

On those autumn days in 1979, the façade of the Church looked secure and stable, but inside the structure was already crumbling.

Brother Hederman said during the papal visit, the bubble reached its maximum size, but it was later to burst.

As a six-year-old boy, Diarmaid Ferriter, now professor of history at UCD, joined the throng in Phoenix Park with his family.

"I came from a house that was not religious, but we got the bus early from Dundrum to be in the park. For many people there, it was a day out," he recalled.

There was no doubt that the visit was a profound religious experience for many of those who attended the events. In the period that followed the visit, thousands of babies were christened John Paul.

But Ferriter has suggested the Pope's visit was a "last hurrah" for the Church as a dominant force.

"Mass attendances were still high, but already the Church was coming under pressure from the secular agenda."

Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical of 1968, had ruled that artificial contraception in all forms was immoral.

But in the same year as the Pope's visit, legislation introduced by Charles Haughey allowed the sale of contraceptives on prescription by chemists for "bona fide" family planning purposes.

"Already there was an element of à-la-carte Catholicism," said Ferriter. "People were making their own decisions about the sizes of their families."

On the first day of the visit, the Irish Independent, in a boldly devout lead story that would be unimaginable now, spelled out the purpose of the trip: "The 59-year-old Polish Pontiff is coming to ensure that Ireland remains faithful to the Church of Christ… and to honour the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, at Knock."

But even at the glorious end of the visit, with crowds mesmerised by John Paul II's charisma, the paper's leader column questioned how deep the impact would be. "What we do not know yet and may not know for a long time is the possible lasting effect of his visit. Will the euphoria disappear?"

The trip took place against a background of violence in the North, and originally it was the Pope's intention to cross the border. In fact, responding to the Troubles in the North was one of the primary purposes of the Pope's visit.

By late summer of 1979 a trip to the North was considered doubtful because of the security risks. Negotiations were still in progress on August 27 when Lord Mountbatten and 18 British soldiers were killed in attacks for which the Provisional IRA claimed responsibility. After these killings, the Pope's programme had to be revised radically and the North crossed off the itinerary.

Drogheda was chosen instead as a symbolic location within the diocese of Armagh. This was where the Pope was to make his dramatic plea for peace.

Just weeks before the visit, the dairy farm of Terry Grant was chosen as the venue.

Tens of thousands of Catholics denied the chance of a papal visit in the Six Counties, streamed across the border to the Louth farm, and by the time the Pope arrived there were 300,000.

It was here that the Pope delivered a line aimed at the terrorists that still resonates across the decades: "On my knees, I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence."

But any hopes that the IRA or the loyalists would suddenly lay down their arms were quickly dispelled as the killing continued. During the visit, IRA supporters kept a low profile, but a spokesman warned that the war would go on - and Ian Paisley branded the Pope "a liar, an imposter, and the anti-Christ".

In the years that followed the visit, we have tended to forget the Pope's attempt to reaffirm the Church's traditional teaching.

On the conflict between career and family commitments, he said: "May Irish mothers, young women and girls not listen to those who tell them that working at a secular job, succeeding in a secular profession, is more important than the vocation of giving life, and caring for that life as a mother."

In Galway, the Pope urged young people to stand by their religious and moral principles. Warning of the future, he said: "The lure of pleasure, whenever and wherever it can be found, will be strong."

The Pope was right in that prediction. In 1979, it was still common for young couples to avoid sex before marriage and living together out of wedlock could be frowned upon as "living in sin". But in the end, the lure of pleasure proved more compelling than the message of powerful prelates.

The historian James Donnelly has said the openly acknowledged purpose of the Irish hierarchy in inviting John Paul to Ireland was to halt, or at least slow, the damaging inroads of materialism and secularism on the attachment of Catholics to their ancient faith.

"Apart from conferring certain limited short-term benefits, the papal visit did not in fact better equip the Catholic Church in Ireland to deal effectively with its challenges and problems."

The Pope declared his love for the "young people of Ireland", and certainly at the time, they seemed happy to reciprocate. But did they love the grey figures at the top of the Irish church?

The papal visit is now seen as a missed opportunity for the church.

Lacking the charisma of the Pope, the dour figures who dominated the Catholic hierarchy were ill-equipped to capitalise on the upsurge in spiritual feeling during that joyful weekend.

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