Saturday 19 October 2019

Brendan O'Connor: Did the Pope's visit signal the beginning of the end?

Was Pope Francis's visit a crossroads, or was it the beginning of the end for the Irish Catholic Church as we know it, asks Brendan O'Connor

Pope Francis greets pilgrims from the Popemobile as he makes his way around the gathering at the Phoenix Park. Picture By David Conachy.
Pope Francis greets pilgrims from the Popemobile as he makes his way around the gathering at the Phoenix Park. Picture By David Conachy.
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Like many of you, we had the papal visit on TV in the background all weekend, dipping in and out of it when we were around. An English person in the house, with the clarity of an outsider, eventually pointed out what he found oddest about it. It was the fact that there was this kind of reverential, respectful coverage of the visit, but then, every time it cut to commentators, they had to discuss child abuse. But then, it was a weekend of contrasts and incongruity.

Even the Pope himself seemed to regret coming at times. It was pointed out more than once that he was at his happiest when he was among his people, being driven along, sometimes a bit too fast for some people's liking, through adoring crowds. He much preferred this to formal occasions apparently. But then he would, wouldn't he? Given that on formal occasions he was generally being asked some hard questions about his church, who wouldn't prefer being driven through waving admirers?

There was even a miracle at the Phoenix Park, which was that nobody from the over-exuberant crowd was run over by the Popemobile, though there was what looked like a close shave with a baby at one point.

The week leading up to the Papal visit had been rather strange too. There was a suggestion in the air in advance of the Pope's visit that it could lead to some kind of revival in the Church in Ireland. To most people, this seemed like a vain hope. Indeed, the closer we got to the visit, the more it seemed like it could shine an unflattering spotlight on the church.

Most people, who have no axe to grind with the Catholic Church, are fairly tolerant of people of faith. We recognise that the sins of the institution are not always the sins of the faithful. Given that most of the population in Ireland comes from some kind of Catholic background, we are slow to condemn anyone who stuck with it. We may not love all their beliefs, but we assume these days that most of them are not hard-core, dogmatic Catholics, that they are fundamentally good people. It's a kind of an Irish solution to an Irish problem. A Father Ted-style accommodation. "You're a Catholic. But you don't really believe all that stuff about gays being disordered and women being inferior do you?"

And then, in the run-up to the Papal visit, we got a close look at some of the soldiers of the church. They popped up in many guises, as people in studio audiences, as journalists, as supposedly concerned, relatable bishops and priests.

And, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised at this, but most of them served to remind us that not only is the Pope a Catholic, but they are all Catholics too. And they reminded us that means many of them accept all the church dogma.

So there we were thinking that most normal people would agree that priests should be allowed to marry and that women should be allowed to be priests and that gay people should be welcome in the church while also being allowed to express their sexuality in the privacy of their own homes. But then we met the soldiers, and it turned out they all had remarkably similar lines on these issues.

They love and welcome the gays, these soldiers of the church, but at the same time they love the sinner but hate the sin. So the gays are more than welcome and God loves them. But they're not allowed to have gay sex. But then, as we heard on more than one occasion, God's teaching is hard on all of us. He is demanding. So if you want to be gay and be in with God, you have to make that sacrifice.

The line on women priests was denounced more than once as clericalism. What is this obsession with women being priests? Sure why would they want to be priests when there are so many other important roles they can play in the church as lay people? And lay people should be more involved with running the church anyway. So can't the women contribute that way?

So you are actually being clericalist and against a synodal church if you keep saying women should be priests. It is, in fact, retrograde thinking.

And as for the matter of whether the cover-up of child abuse was systemic? No. It is a cultural matter, a kind of a version of Fr Jack Hackett's ''that would be an ecumenical matter'' in Father Ted. Because culture is a kind of a miasma, an intangible thing that no one is to blame for. A culture just grows organically.

We knew, watching the soldiers do their advance guard in the run-up to the visit, that many ordinary Catholics do not agree with these hard lines. Our own Kantar Millward Brown poll a few weeks ago showed that a majority of the population agrees that the church treats women unfairly, that they should be allowed to be priests and that priests should be allowed to marry.

But then again, that's the general population. A poll of just devout Catholics might be different.

Indeed, judging by the soldiers sent out to prepare the ground for the Pope, it would be very different. The very clear message coming from most of these people was that the church is not set for fundamental change, that these are the beliefs, and you could take them or leave them. Many of them spoke longingly of a new church, a smaller church of true believers.

If the Catholic Church is at a crossroads over whether to dilute the rules and maintain its dominance, or else to hold the line, at the expense of becoming more niche, the impression you got was that the soldiers favour holding the line and going niche. And that they won't mind losing the Mary McAleeses and those who agree with her, the people who have traditionally been the backbone of the Irish church but who are saddened and disillusioned by what they see as some of the more inhumane rules of the church.

And let's face it, the church can afford to lose this rump of non-committal half-hearted Catholics here in Ireland when business is brisk in Africa and the developing world.

All in all, looking back on it, the Pope's visit was a kind of moment of clarity. It highlighted not just how much had changed here since the last visit, but how the church, which many people thought was changing, has not changed.

The scenes of the Popemobile mowing through the crowds at the Phoenix Park could have been from the 1970s, but the discussion in between these scenes was from a new era, an era that is increasingly leaving the church behind.

Will we look back on it as the beginning of the end? Or will it be seen as the beginning of a new incarnation of the Catholic Church in Ireland? Smaller, more devout, but uncompromising in its determination not to move with the times.

If a Pope comes back after another 40 years, will it be a national event with round-the-clock coverage? Many argued that the closing down of Dublin on this occasion was excessive.

Will they even need to close the roads the next time?

Sunday Independent

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