Tuesday 20 August 2019

Francis will be greeted by show of faith, whatever our scepticism

It's hypocrisy writ large, but 'cultural Catholicism' is still a strong force in Ireland, writes Dearbhail McDonald

IN SPOTLIGHT: Chilean bishop Juan Barros was defended by the
Pope despite accusations he covered up for a paedophile priest
IN SPOTLIGHT: Chilean bishop Juan Barros was defended by the Pope despite accusations he covered up for a paedophile priest
Dearbhail McDonald

Dearbhail McDonald

Barring a Chilean bishops-style meltdown, the visit to Ireland by Pope Francis, the first Papal visit since 1979, should be a success.

The publication last week of the truly sickening (if all too familiar) interim grand jury report into clerical sex abuse in Pennsylvania threatens to overshadow the whirlwind visit, which coincides with the ninth World Meeting of Families (WMOF), the largest Catholic gathering in the world held once every three years.

The grand jury report detailed decades of sexual abuse by priests and cover-ups by bishops. It included a paedophile ring where "predator priests" would mark out which boys had been groomed for abuse by giving them gold crosses to wear as necklaces.

Pennsylvania represents a crucial test for the papacy of the hugely charismatic Francis who triggered outrage during a recent visit to Chile.

Days after meeting with, and apologising to, victims of abuse, Pope Francis dismissed accusations against Juan Barros, whom he had appointed as Bishop of Osorno in 2015. Barros was accused of being complicit in covering up the crimes of Chile's most notorious paedophile, Fr Fernando Karadima, but was robustly defended by the Pope.

"The day I see proof against Bishop Barros, then I will talk. There is not a single piece of evidence against him," the Pope told a reporter while still in Chile. "It is all slander. Is that clear?" he added, later apologising profusely and expressing his "shame" for his "grave errors in judgment" in the scandal that saw all 34 bishops from Chile offer their resignation over the cover-up of sexual abuse of children. In Ireland, a keynote address on Wednesday afternoon at the RDS was likely to be the prime lightning rod for any anger associated with Francis's visit.

The address was to be delivered by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington - and former bishop of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from 1988 to 2006 - who does not emerge unscathed from the grand jury report. However, yesterday he became the second US cardinal to withdraw from the event.

As Pope Francis commences his Mass at 3pm next Sunday in Phoenix Park before an audience of up to 500,000, there will also be a solidarity meeting at the Garden of Remembrance for victims of clerical sex abuse and others hurt by the Catholic Church.

The hurts are historical, including the Magdalene Laundries, Tuam babies scandal and our own dark history of clerical sex abuse and cover- ups. They are also contemporary hurts, including the exclusion of, and discrimination toward, LGBT families from the WMOF and the low standing of women in the Catholic Church which the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, says is the main reason for the feeling of alienation toward the Catholic Church in Ireland today.

The Papal visit has inevitably 'triggered' - to borrow a phrase from those who specialise in treating victims of trauma - a maelstrom of emotions in an Ireland that is unrecognisable from the country John Paul II visited in 1979, one that is recalibrating its relationship with the Catholic Church.

The legalisation of divorce, marriage equality and this year's emphatic referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution - paving the way for legal termination of pregnancy - are the most obvious iterations of that recalibration of the relationship between the citizenry and the hierarchy and between the separation of church and State.

It is a separation that is still more imagined than real, given the extraordinary power and control the Catholic Church still wields over key areas of public life including many of our publicly funded hospitals. And what of its dominance in all but name of our education system, where the church maintains, as patrons, nine out of 10 of our schools?

It's incredible, to outside observers, that many of our public services still bear the hallmarks of a theocratic state and not a modern republic that has given a resounding green light to gay marriage and abortion.

But unscrambling that church/State interdependence is not as easy as it looks, as disputes over the future of schools and hospitals attest.

For all the church's faults, we still cling to a 'cultural Catholicism' that ensures Pope Francis's visit will be a success. Almost eight out of 10 of us still identify as Catholic, according to the 2016 census. We admire the church's great social work, particularly with poverty, homelessness and refugees, and the acts of modern day saints such as Fr Peter McVerry, Sister Stan or Brother Kevin Crowley.

We still marry in churches and baptise our children, if only to secure a place in school. The vast majority of us choose to have our requiems in churches and bodies interred in consecrated ground.

And the monies spent on Communion and Confirmation parties - turning up for the rites and nothing more.

It's arguably hypocrisy writ large, but faith matters to many, even if they don't follow all the rules of the club.

The Catholic Church, struggling to serve a populace at odds with many of its teachings, is equally guilty of colluding in the a la carte game - remember the empty threat that the church would pull out of the civil part of weddings if the marriage referendum passed?

It is this Ireland, one in the midst of a huge reckoning, that Pope Francis will encounter next weekend.

And it is these tensions and contradictions that we and the Catholic Church must wrestle with, long after the Papal circus leaves town.

Sunday Independent

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