August 25 2018 2:30 AM
Make no mistake, the arrival of Pope Francis today and his whirlwind visitation will be an outstanding success. Historic. Inspirational. It’s certain, because of the nature of the man himself and the scale of the event.
Sometimes you meet a religious person in whom you instantly detect deep spirituality, humanity in their lifelong commitment that epitomises the extent of their vocational calling. For them, being a cleric is only the outer manifestation of an inner human quality of kindness and compassion.
They don’t have to be Church leaders. Take Fr Peter McVerry. Long before our current housing crisis or the establishment of the McVerry Trust – since his ordination in 1975 – he has helped young people in the most deprived parts of Dublin battle drug dependency and societal isolation.
Take Brother Kevin Crowley, founder of the Capuchin Day Centre in 1969 to provide basic necessities to the most disadvantaged citizens in need of food and clothing. The humble friar’s Christianity is self-evident.
Throughout their adult lives, pastoral dedication is an all-consuming life cause.
Pope Francis is clearly in the same mould. His priestly ministry in Argentina was one of continual advocacy for the poor. As bishop and pontiff, his defining zeal isn’t doctrinal theology, but championing causes of the most destitute. His humble lifestyle of modesty in Rome eschews palaces and summer residences.
Being a Protestant, I didn’t understand what being a Jesuit meant until Charlie McCreevy defined the congregation to me. If you go to confess to a Jesuit and say: “Bless me, father, I have sinned by committing murder”, the Jesuit priest will reply, “Yes, my son…and what else?” – the inference being they’re so worldly and non-judgemental, they stand apart.
The other reason why the papal events in Knock and the Phoenix Park will be a total triumph is simply because of the scale of attendance. The difference between last Sunday’s All-Ireland hurling final and other hurling epics throughout the year is the brilliant buzz of the capacity crowds. Streets around Drumcondra and Croke Park were electric with tribal anticipation. People make the event.
The difference in atmosphere at the Galway Races when there’s 40,000 people there during the summer festival, compared to an identical September fixture with 4,000 people can only be explained by the human cacophony of crowd size, despite the same equine circumstances.
With 50,000 faithful at the Mayo shrine and 500,000 pilgrims in the Park, this weekend will create its own intoxicating inspiration of unique memories. Coupled with pomp, ceremony, traditional rites and music, you have magical moments of celebratory solemnity. Even if you’re an atheist or arch Church critic, you cannot fail to be moved by the spectacle.
Yet, despite rave reviews all next week, prospects for the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, in terms of societal importance/relevance and as a powerful influence on public policy, is set to continue to decline on its steep descent.
Media anticipation of the Irish papal visit has been cast in the context of contrasting Pope John Paul II’s 1979 events with today. Projecting forward over future decades towards 2050 makes more sense.
As a Proddy, I can offer different insights to the challenges of ageing priests, disappearing vocations, declining weekly Sunday Mass/Service attendances – because these crises have already taken their toll on the Church of Ireland. Over the past three decades, the effects of inter-generational lapsed faith by the laity and disappearing clergy meant fundamental reform, albeit on miniature scale to Catholicism.
In the Enniscorthy parish of St Mary’s, there is in fact a union of parishes, whereby the rector is responsible for a handful of adjoining churches and their parishioners. The micro unit of administration has been amalgamated into a group.
The Dioceses of Ferns had to be also reorganised into a combined Diocese of Cashel, Ossory and Ferns. One bishop operates from Kilkenny over a vast area.
Our local incumbent rector is a wonderful young woman, Reverend Nicola Halford. Hailing from Inchicore, Dublin, she has recently returned from maternity leave, having had her first baby. She’s an absolute tonic to the ageing veteran parishioners, full of vitality and new ideas. She’s especially great at cajoling children into religious activity – just having completed a summer camp of ‘Bible’ study in the local school, run by unpaid teenage volunteers.
Women priests add vigour and sensitivity to churches’ ministry. Arguments against them are dated, phoney and misogynist. Mary McAleese and lay organisations like We Are Church are providing internal reform leadership that’s so sadly lacking from the all-male hierarchy and the Vatican.
Clerical celibacy is frankly abnormal. Undoubtedly it’s a contributory factor in the global evil of the reported six to 10pc of Catholic priests becoming predatory sex abusers – in many cases, subject to abuse themselves as seminarians.
As a TD in Wexford, amongst my close social friends were priests. While respecting their deep obligations of ordination vows, I sensed their innate personal loneliness, of having no partner and being disbarred from forming a loving relationship. Clerical understanding of human relationship problems relating to marital breakdown, artificial contraception and abortion would be greatly enhanced if they could live like normal people. This is mere common sense.
Most recent surveys reveal a growing inter-generational gulf of more than 3:1 between the Church’s teaching on female priests, allowing clerical marriage and Church/State separation. My generation were happy to be hypocritical adhering to church baptisms, confirmations and marriages, while simultaneously disregarding Church teaching.
Today’s new parents increasingly favour humanist weddings and deride baptismal barriers to school enrolment.
Our doublethink was justified on the grounds of respect for our parents’ traditions and institutional authority.
Recent referendum results on marriage equality and the Eighth Amendment indicate the next generation will call out crass contradictions: disconnection of fertility from sex, LGBT issues, Curia failure to reform Canon Law to provide mandatory reporting to eradicate systemic cover-ups of abuse. All issues spawn antagonism, ending deference to Church institutions. The pace of change from intolerance of our hypocrisy is set to remove the role of the Churches in health and education in coming decades.
Despite the success of this weekend, Irish society and Pope Francis are inexorably heading in polar opposite directions.