Actions will be test of new covenant
In his speech to mark the visit of Pope Francis, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he believed that the time had now come to build a new relationship between church and State in Ireland, what he called "a new covenant for the 21st Century". It was his hope that the visit of the Pope would mark the opening of a new chapter in the relationship between Ireland and the Catholic Church. Undoubtedly, the hope expressed by Mr Varadkar will be shared by many people and not just the faithful, while mindful also, as the Taoiseach said, that religion is no longer the centre of our society but within which it still has an important place.
From verses of the Bible, it is apparent that under a new covenant, the sins of the past must be forgiven. It will be some time yet before we know whether the visit of Pope Francis heralds a forgiveness of the sins of the church, particularly against the abused children of Ireland and others, mostly women. In time, perhaps, the visit will come to be seen as the most significant milestone yet on the continuing journey toward forgiveness and reconciliation.
In his speech, Mr Varadkar also highlighted the failures of the State in the past, and indeed of "wider society", which he said had created a bitter and broken heritage for so many, leaving a legacy of pain and suffering. It was appropriate that he should so do. The failures of State, and of wider society, are sometimes not as widely recognised as they properly should be in what is an understandable need to apportion blame at those who most immediately inflicted grievous harm on the most vulnerable and innocent within society.
In his address, Pope Francis spoke of the repugnant abuse and betrayal of trust inflicted upon those victims, and of how the Catholic Church must work to remedy past mistakes and to adopt stringent norms meant to ensure that they do not happen again. These, in other forms, are words that we have heard before, and are accepted as such, to be heartfelt and deeply held by a Pope who, in his sincerity and humility, has been embraced by the people of Ireland. However, as the Taoiseach also said, actions must flow from words. There can only be zero tolerance for those who abuse innocent children or who facilitate that abuse.
Pope Francis will today continue his visit, the high point of which will be a Mass at the Phoenix Park which is expected to be attended by around 500,000. Such a turnout is testament to the goodwill which still exists in Ireland towards the Catholic Church and of the good work that the vast majority of the religious perform in service of the people of this country. Indeed, it is this good work which has sustained the church through the 'dark aspects' of its history to an extent, as we also report today, that it remains a respected institution within this State. For a new covenant to have true meaning, however, the church must make good on its side of the agreement not just by words, however heartfelt, but also by deeds, and in that regard we look forward with interest to what the Pope will say on the remainder of his visit. Church and State are at the beginning of a new journey, with a long road still to travel. It is to be welcomed, however, that the first meaningful steps have been taken.