What did we learn from the papal visit? – In ten easy lessons

Before the dust settles on the memorable visit of Pope Francis, it might be timely to ask the question: what did we learn?

  1. Clerical Abuse issue 

Any expectation that the abuse issue would be put on the back boiler for the duration of the visit was blown out of the water by reports of abuse in America, notably in Pennsylvania, and the campaign by survivors in Irelands to force Francis to announce specific actions.

Francis, who was in an impossible situation, responded to the survivors he met by adverting directly to their demands in the Phoenix Park Mass and to the wider issues by promising at Knock that ‘the open wound’ left by abuse challenged him ‘to be firm and decisive in the pursuit of truth and justice’.

He was right about not announcing specific measures because he knows that undoing a culture of entitlement among bishops and clergy can’t be solved by Thursday week. His own experience of trying to root out the noxious weed of clericalism in the Vatican tells him that.

2. Institutional Abuse issue 

Surprise was widely expressed that Francis didn’t seem to know anything about the Magdalen laundries, the industrial schools, the Tuam Babies, etc. The presumption was that he would have been briefed on these issues in the run-up to the visit. Hard to expect him to respond if, a bit like his recent Chilean experience, he wasn’t aware of all the facts. As a man given to asides during his speeches I wonder had he more to say privately to the bishops than appeared in the official script?

3. Letters to the pope

There are 1.2 billion Catholics. With very different needs and expectations. Imagine the number of letters he gets. Imagine the retinue of secretaries going through them. Imagine those deciding what letters get to Francis. Imagine the time Francis has for reading them. We shouldn’t get too excited about our letters not getting through the Vatican sieve. We shouldn’t, like Mary McAleese, say the pope has bad manners if he doesn’t reply! But that said he should have been briefed better.

4. Listen to the people

The great truth Francis kept hammering was ‘Listen to the people’. I wonder was he conscious that he needed to say that in Ireland? Probably, because there’s no official sign of any enthusiasm in the Irish Church for Francis and his reforms. Even though the people want it, are still able and prepared to drive it and most of the clergy can see we need it – badly.

5. Civil War

We learned too that the trial of strength in the Church – or ‘the civil war’, as Patsy McGarry of the Irish Times accurately described it – is now truly out in the open, after the attack on Francis (and others) by the former nuncio to Washington, Archbishop Vigano. An 11-page statement, rabid in its denunciation, descended on the world’s press just as Francis was leaving Ireland, and was clearly intended to do the maximum damage. It’s part of an orchestrated attempt by reactionary forces to undo the reforms initiated by Francis, as investigations quickly revealed.

6. Warm . . . and stubborn

It will be interesting to see what follows the Vigano document as Francis has already side-lined senior cardinals who stood in his way. Francis is a warm and compassionate human being, as we saw during the visit, but while not authoritarian he can be authoritative when needed and has a determined and stubborn streak in him. Now that the opposition to Francis is more out in the open Catholics have a greater sense of what he’s up against in Rome – and other places!

7. Confessions

In an aside in the Capuchin Centre in Dublin Francis suddenly said: ‘Priests can be too inquisitive in Confession. Like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, don’t cross-question. If someone is sorry, give them absolution’. Francis was sending a clear signal to priests that we need a different format for Confessions, not the traditional ‘number and kind’ fixation of some priests but a format more acceptable and more respectful to penitents.

8. Next World Meeting of Families (WMoF)

Francis took everyone by surprise when he announced that the next WMoF would take place in Rome. What could this possibly mean? His (part?) explanation was that it would be an occasion to mark the 5thanniversary of his letter, The Joy of Love, which hasn’t received the attention it deserved. Could it be that a fuller explanation might be that Francis is not convinced that the present formula of WMoF isn’t delivering, is too expensive and its effectiveness is undermined by the visit of the pope?

9. Winners

The winners included Irish Catholics who delighted in the visit, in the warm engaging personality of Francis and in the lift his bright presence has given to our Church after decades of darkness. Other winners were: RTE for its blanket coverage (despite their obsession with the abuse issue); Michael D. Higgins for the welcome he gave Francis (and the votes it will have garnered for the imminent presidential election); and Leo Varadkar for his speech (balanced, gracious and respectful, though skirting the foothills of arrogance on occasion).

10. Losers

Losers included the LGBT community who looked set to receive much attention from the publicity surrounding the WMoF but whose interests were effectively side-lined by the abuse publicity. And, the other great losers were Irish priests who once again effectively were battered by the media as if we were all possible paedophiles, every last one of us.

Not an easy time to be a card-carrying Catholic in Ireland. Not an easy time to be a Catholic priest.


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  1. Eddie Finnegan says:

    #2: “As a man given to asides during his speeches I wonder had he more to say privately to the bishops than appeared in the official script.”
    My thoughts too as I read the script. No mass episcopal resignations yet, alas, but they let him and a lot of victims and their advocates down as badly as did the Chilenos, not just in the run up to his visit but over more than five years. Let’s hope that he let the old Latin temper rip, dropping into the vernacular with ‘caca! merda!’.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    Comment from a Dubliner:

    “We have had the Pope visit since you were here. It was a sad occasion. No one wanted to know. No one wanted all that scandal and abuse brought up. No one wanted to hear more apologies for the failures of the past. It was a missed opportunity proclaim God’s love to the people of Ireland.”

  3. Colm Holmes says:

    I agree with Brendan on 8 of his insightful 10 points.

    I do think it is bad manners not to reply to a letter from the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

    I do not regard the LGBT community as losers as they respectfully welcomed Pope Francis on the Ha’Penny bridge and the Rainbow Choir sang outside the World Meeting of Families and the world knew that LGBT families were not allowed to speak at this World Meeting of Families.

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