Saturday 25 May 2019

The Pope is welcome to come, but his visit will not define the era or Ireland

Most people don't have strong feelings about the Pope's visit one way or another, and that may be more worrying for the Church

APATHY: Pope Francis’s visit Pic: Reuters
APATHY: Pope Francis’s visit Pic: Reuters

Eilis O'Hanlon

They argued about the Government's record on social housing. There was also plenty to chew over in regard to US President Donald Trump's summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Then Sean O'Rourke asked the guests on the regular Friday morning Gathering segment of his RTE Radio One show for their thoughts on the announcement of the itinerary for Pope Francis's forthcoming visit to Ireland.

Irish Independent columnist Colette Browne had first bite at that cherry. She simply said: "It's going to be a good trip, a lot of people are going to enjoy it, I don't have any problem with him coming here, and I hope it goes off without a hitch." Damien English, Minister of State for Housing, remarked that it was a "big event for the State" and "a good story for Ireland".

Michael O'Regan, parliamentary correspondent of The Irish Times - who'd earlier won top cliche points with a quip about Trump and Kim's bizarre hairstyles (oh, how listeners must have split their sides at that one; sure they've never heard that gag before) - welcomed the fact Pope Francis would be visiting Brother Kevin's homeless centre during his stay in Dublin in August.

Even Richard Boyd Barrett, People Before Profit TD for Dun Laoghaire, sounded fairly sanguine about the whole thing. He did say that he didn't think "the State should fork out a pile of money for it", and that the Vatican needed to open its files on "what it knew, when it knew, and what it did" about clerical child abuse, a call with which few would surely disagree; but again, he recognised that it would be a special occasion for Irish Catholics and they had every entitlement to look forward to it, and, well, that was that really.

Like most people, they didn't seem to have particularly strong views about Pope Francis visiting the country one way or another.

In a country where people are rarely short of an opinion, and pundits and politicians can be called upon by broadcasters to start a row at the drop of a hat, such a broad agreement is rather remarkable when you think about it; and if I was a practising Catholic, I'd be much more worried at the general indifference to the forthcoming papal visit than I would be by outright hostility. Antagonism would at least suggest that the Church was still relevant enough to oppose. If no one cares that much any more, it can only be because the Catholic Church has ceased to have a pivotal place in Irish life. These days it's just part of the country's tapestry, not a defining feature of Irishness.

That has both good and bad consequences. The good is the greater sense of personal freedom that young people in particular feel now that they're no longer growing up under the oppressive shadow of an authoritarian, puritanical sexual morality. Whether greater permissiveness actually makes them happier than their parents and grandparents is a moot point, because as a generation they still seem rather confused and anxious, despite all this unfettered liberty, but they'll work through it eventually. And if they don't, then future generations will. Nothing stays the same for ever. That ethical pendulum is always swinging.

The bad outcomes from the decline of Christian feeling in Ireland are harder to define, but no less important, because something has definitely been lost as Catholicism has weakened, and it wasn't all negative. Materialism is a miserable philosophy, both in the popular sense of longing for more and more stuff, and also in the older meaning of believing that there's nothing to the world except what you can see and touch - and the two are, of course, related, in that the desire for material possessions exists in order to plug a spiritual gap left by the death of a belief in something greater, intangible, numinous.

Even the Taoiseach has been stirred by some vicious attacks on the religiously minded following the referendum on the Eighth Amendment to stand up for the social value of faith. In an eloquent rebuke in the Dail to Wexford TD Mick Wallace's complaint that "Ireland lags behind" by still having church-maintained schools and hospitals, Leo Varadkar drew an important line in the sand last week, by insisting that he too believed in the separation of Church and State, but that he didn't "believe in the socialist ideology, which is to push religion out of the public space and force people who are religious to be ashamed that they have religious convictions and to hide them in a corner".

Now, the Taoiseach's critics may argue this defence of religiosity is too little, too late, and might even suggest that he's just trying to get back in the Church's good books so that he can grab a piece of the Pope's visit when it happens; and there may be some merit in both those cynical charges. Leo does love a good photo opportunity.

But it would be churlish not to acknowledge that Varadkar made a timely and graceful intervention by reminding the country that voices on the left demand the defunding of religious organisations not simply because they want to see a separation of Church and State, but because they "want to turn religious people into pariahs".

If so, then the left may, once again, be doomed to disappointment by misjudging the Irish people. There are some pockets of giddy enthusiasm out there, and some of rancour, and the amplification provided by social media can make it seem that the second lot are far more representative of opinion than they really are. But most people's feelings towards the papal visit are motivated neither by blind obedience nor radical discontent, but by a calm equanimity.

They wish the trip well. They hope the sun shines, and that everyone has a safe, happy few days out. Beyond that, what else is there to say? Pope Francis is as welcome to come here as any other world leader or celebrity.

There will undoubtedly be more heated debates come August when the crowds get to hear what Francis has to say; and there'll always be a columnist or two willing to bash out a thousand words on why the money should be spent on the homeless and hungry instead of well-fed bishops and cardinals, so Sean O'Rourke will still get to referee a good brouhaha in the RTE studios in due course as the simmering coals of the Irish Church's historic crimes are raked over.

But while tens of thousands of people will undoubtedly register for places at Knock or the Phoenix Park when tickets become available in a week's time, this summer's visit is certainly not going to define the times the way that Pope John Paul II's arrival in Ireland did in 1979. It will be more like the Rolling Stones doing Croke Park in May, only with much better music and a significantly younger crowd.

Sunday Independent

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