Wednesday 21 February 2018

Papal visit: Waning faith of our fathers

If Pope Francis comes to Ireland in 2018, he will find a country that is ­radically different to the one last visited by a pontiff 36 years ago this week.

Blessings: Pope John Paul II meets the gathered crowds with Cardinal Ó Fiaich in Phoenix Park
Blessings: Pope John Paul II meets the gathered crowds with Cardinal Ó Fiaich in Phoenix Park
Bishop Casey and Fr Michael Cleary
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

As Pope John Paul II left Ireland in October 1979 after a triumphant visit, he could confidently utter the Latin phrase "Semper fidelis" - Always faithful.

Almost three million people turned out to greet him on his travels through Ireland. 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.

If, as predicted, Pope Francis flies into Ireland in 2018, he will find a country that on the face of it looks radically different to that of 1979.

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

Now, only around 35pc of Catholics go to church every week, and the decline is much more evident in Dublin. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has said that on any particular Sunday just 18pc of the Catholic population goes to Mass in the capital, and in some parishes attendance may be as low as 5pc. How many of the remaining lapsed or semi-lapsed Catholics would go into raptures at the sight of a Pope, even one as charming as Francis?

The scene appeared so different 36 years ago.

In Galway on the Sunday of John Paul II's trip, tens of thousands of young people chanted "We love the Pope", and sang 'He's Got the Whole World in His Hands'. Mark Patrick Hederman, now Abbot of Glenstal, was there during the Galway mass and says the atmosphere was like that at a rock concert.

There were similar scenes of rapture on the day before 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 flags.

Brother Hederman says John Paul II was nothing short of a "mega-star" at the time.

Looking back on those days, he points 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 USA, Welles remarked: "It seems to be working in the Vatican."

Brother Hederman has doubts about another papal visit. "A visit from the present Pope would be a human encounter: many would be touched; many would be disappointed," he says.

"It would be nothing like 1979 and maybe it should not happen at all."

With the enormous crowds during the papal visit of 1979, 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."

Prof Ferriter believes 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," says 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 baldly 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."

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 Pope John Paul did not travel across the border as a result.

"On my knees I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence," he said.

But any hopes that the IRA or the loyalists would suddenly lay down their arms were quickly dispelled as the killing continued.

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. Now, those who remain chaste until their wedding night are considered an oddity. In the end, the lure of pleasure proved more compelling than the lure of powerful prelates, who as the 80s and 90s wore on, were increasingly seen as out of touch.

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."

A sizeable liberal minority was becoming increasingly vocal in the 1980s, and it really began to inflict heavy defeats on the Church in the following decades, as prominent figures were mired in scandal. Bishop Eamon Casey played a central role in the papal mass in Galway as master of ceremonies, and seemed to be one of the few bishops who was a strong media performer.

According to Prof Donnelly, Bishop Casey's fall from grace after it was revealed that he had fathered a son in the early 90s was all the more painful and damaging to the institutional Church because he had seemed to embody its most modern and attractive features. He was involved in Third World development and in setting up welfare centres for the emigrant Irish in Britain.

The Casey affair might have been forgiven, but the litany of sexual abuse cases that came to light in the 1990s almost fatally undermined the Church's moral authority. The steep decline in church attendance coincided with these scandals.

Joe Duffy was a student union official at Trinity College at the time of the Pope's visit, and was a reader at the papal Mass in Galway.

The Liveline presenter questions why the present Pope is only coming in 2018.

"Why the wait? Pope Benedict should have come for the Eucharistic congress three years ago. That would have made a difference in terms of healing," he says.

"I still think Francis would get a massive turnout but leaving it for a few years might lead to accusations that he is interfering in the inevitable 8th amendment referendum (on abortion), which will only catapult the Church back."

1. Ryanair

2. The internet

3. Peace in the North

4. Female Presidents

5. Sex shops

6. The euro

7. Mobile phones

8. The Luas and the Dart

9. Divorce

10. Condoms in pubs

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