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Why the Pope shouldn’t come to Ireland now.

What would we do at all if we hadn’t the Catholic Church to lean on when we needed it?
Taoiseach Enda, who not too long ago socked it to Rome for its perceived failure to step up to the mark in the child abuse scandals, conspicuously attended the recent canonisations in St Peter’s Square and had a word afterwards with Pope Francis, even inviting him to come to Ireland. And Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, who so conspicuously closed the Embassy to the Holy See amid cheers from his secular constituency, has announced that (surprise, surprise) an appointment of a new Ambassador is just about to happen.
It couldn’t, of course, have anything to do with the coming elections? Or with the fact that while the young – who were always presumed to be anti-establishment and are now presumed irreligious – tend not to vote, while the great phalanx of older, traditional Catholics tend to turn up in droves on election day. Is it any wonder that cynicism rules, okay?
So let me be even a little more cynical.
Who would like to see Pope Francis coming to Ireland? Enda would, especially if he could deliver the visit just before the next general election. Eamon Gilmore would, as Foreign minister, because it would place a world focus on Ireland and provide millions of euro worth of free publicity. Leo Varadker would because it would bring thousands and thousands of tourists (sorry, pilgrims) to Ireland. And the Irish bishops would too because it would deflect from the many issues that they need (and are failing) to deal with and it would create a feel-good factor for religion and more specifically Catholicism after all the bad news of recent years. After all, with everyone seemingly singing from the same hymn-sheet, the atmosphere is ripe for another three-day party like we had in the autumn of 1979.
But who wouldn’t like Pope Francis to come to Ireland? Probably Pope Francis himself because even though he’s clearly a very personable and sociable man and would take the country by storm, such visits are not his style. He doesn’t like them, even though sometimes he has no choice – like with Brazil. And he doesn’t like them because they go against the grain of his firm and oft-stated conviction that he’s first and foremost the bishop of Rome, the first among equals.
Francis has made it perfectly clear that he wants national episcopal conferences to take more responsibility for their own countries and to stop looking over their shoulders to see what Rome is saying or even might be saying or even might be thinking. And he wants bishops to lead, to push out a bit from the shore, to stretch the boundaries, to take whatever tide is offered and not to lapse (as bishops sometimes do) into sullen and stolid silence.
Francis knows that there were two problems with Saint John Paul’s memorable visits around the world, including to Ireland in 1979. One was that they helped over-centralise the authority of the Church in Rome and in the person of the pope, whereas Francis is doing everything he can to decentralise it. Another is that the visits, hyped by the media, developed a cult of personality around the pope and Francis is rightly suspicious of that. The Church may not be a democracy, and we could be more democratic than we are, but its not a monarchy either.
I have to say I’m with Francis in this. The last thing the Irish Catholic Church needs is a visit from the Pope and an effort to relive the glory days of 1979, which everyone imagined would lead to a new spring for the Church but which we now know was the prelude to a Siberian winter.
There’s no need to list yet again the many problems the Catholic Church in Ireland has to face but having a party, no matter how enjoyable it might be with Francis at the heart of it, is hardly the answer to them. Worse still it would simply be a camouflage, a papering over the cracks, a distraction from the issues we need to face.
Much better if Francis was to thank the politicians and the churchmen for their generous invitation but that he can’t come because he’s otherwise engaged. Much better if he were to tell the Irish bishops that they need to get on with what they should be doing and not waste time and money and energy on another jamboree.
The biggest problem the Irish Church has is that its leaders refuse to engage with the real issues and insist on deflecting attention from the incontrovertible realities of Irish Church life.
Let me give just one example. In 20 years time most priests in Ireland will be over 70, with some over 60 and hardly anyone under 50. That’s not an opinion. That’s what we get if we crunch the available figures. And what’s the official antidote: encourage male celibate vocations!
That’s what I mean when I say that we need to cut through the unreality of imagining that policies that have failed and can be seen to have failed are being re-hashed and re-proposed as if they are the answer when they’re just part of the problem.
The key problem is not a lack of faith on the part of the people ­– the current episcopal response to every problem. The key problem is that, despite the fact that Pope Francis is encouraging them to find their voice, the Irish bishops are still looking over their shoulders to Rome.
So who should be surprised that we will remain in crisis-mode if we refuse to face reality and distract ourselves with the vague hope that a visit from the pope will solve anything?
The very last thing the Irish Church needs is a visit from the pope.

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  1. Enda briefly stood up to pope and vatican. Also a few priests. The torpor referred to mainly afflicts the church. Many secular journalists I suspect are more than willing to express the view that the pope has no business here. Maybe they’re the only people in the country who don’t live in fear. Oops, I forgot their editors.

  2. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Two points first:
    i. I agree completely with the tenor of Brendan’s article. In three words: ‘NO POPE HERE!’ – at least not now, not for a very long time, and certainly not for the distraction or comfort that politicians or bishops might hope to draw from a jamboree.
    ii. I’m glad to see an ACP Leader, or even ‘leader writer’, excavating for the people of Mayo and further afield the cynicism of Mayoman Enda’s narcissistic invitation to Francis, revealing the dysfunction that dominates Dáil Éireann today. And surely, if Rome lacked for a miracle or two to canonise John and John Paul properly, Eamon’s discovery that a Vatican Embassy that only yesterday made no economic contribution to Irish state coffers will now be a real money spinner to outdo Villa Pra(v)da itself is a Labour Miracle, First Class. Mirabile dictu!
    But really (iii) an article headed, “Why the Pope shouldn’t come to Ireland now”, that manages to talk about Ireland’s and the Irish Church’s reasons for NO POPE HERE at the minute as if Ireland and the Irish Church comprised 26 counties rather than 26 dioceses and 32 counties must itself be a major miracle of journalism. Iterum Mirabilissimo dictu vel scripto!
    But I would say that, wouldn’t I? (Cogar, I wonder whatever happened that ACP jamboree in Ballygawley? That’s the Tyrone Ballygawley of course – not its pale imitators in Derry and Sligo.)

  3. While Father Hoban’s view is well taken and deserves consideration, it is also true, that if, it is, in fact, our Lord who is summoning Pope Francis to Ireland, then he must go, and no one, not even Pope Francis can do otherwise. As a well regarded priest once said, here in Edmonton, “Once you agree to drop your nets and be a fisher for Christ, you no longer call the shots.”

  4. Joe O'Leary says:

    This reminded me of Brendan’s classic and prophetic article “Lost Opportunities”, written after the 1979 papal visit.

  5. Sean O'Conaill says:

    I was close to Ballybrit in Galway in September 1979, but refused to go ‘to see the pope’. I took very seriously the principle that all of us are exactly equal in dignity, and saw the cult already surrounding John Paul II as dangerous for the church. Every bit as serious as his dismal performance on child sex abuse, his uncritical enjoyment of that cult was, for me, his Achilles heel as a spiritual leader.
    It totally paralysed and fixated the Irish episcopacy also – and that legacy lives on in our bishops’ continuing non-response to what Francis is essentially telling all bishops: ‘For God’s sake stop looking to the papacy for answers to every question. Do your own thinking, in dialogue with your own people and their culture!’
    I keep thinking of a young pet rabbit my Dad brought home once on the bus in Dublin – in a shoe box. He broke open the end of the box and set it down on the grass in our walled back garden. We watched through the kitchen window, to see how long it would take the white rabbit to realise it could now come out safely into the sun. That took ages and occurred by stages. First a glimpse of a nose – but that was immediately withdrawn again. Later, more of the nose – but then again, disappearance. It took a full half hour for the whole rabbit to appear – and even then it frightened itself and disappeared again in a rush. All that day the rabbit stayed within a second of the box, unbelieving in its freedom – darting back at every unfamiliar noise.
    I think too of the Moldova I have visited, where people remained paralysed for two decades after the fall of their Soviet prison. Even yet the responsibilities of freedom have not been easily assumed by the older generations there.
    It is so still with our bishops. They are mostly in that papal mental shoe-box yet, their thoughts not given freedom – in case they could be dangerous. They are still afraid also to ask the rest of us what we think about a whole range of issues – including the advance of secularism. After all, Francis is 77 and mortal, with the curia already poised to make sure there won’t be a Francis II.
    Yes, yes – best to stay in the shoe-box for now.

  6. Sean O’Connaill @5.
    Your mention of your pet rabbit jumped out at me! Did your dad get it in Eamonn de Buitleir’s pet shop in Parnell street? That’s where my dad got our pet rabbit also his fishing bait and tackle! Your analogy of the bewildered rabbit and the bishops is very astute.

  7. Clare Hannigan says:

    I think that I would find a Papal visit to Ireland a sad occasion as it would remind me of how much the church has changed over the past twenty years. There were plenty of teenagers and young adults at the Masses in 1979. It would be very different now. I recently was among a group of about 10 men and women in their twenties and thirties who were going to attend a vigil for life. The discussion centred on how difficult it is for Priests today with the fall in vocations. The Priests are worn out doing funerals and it was suggested that if people do not attend Mass regularly they should not be entitled to a Christian Funeral. Everyone else seemed in agreement so I remained silent. I realised that the people they had in mind were my children and other family members. I thought also of a young adult male who because of depression and too many unanswered prayers no longer believes, of a woman starting cancer treatment, of the son of a pillar of the church who was also a secret emotionally abusive alcoholic parent. I found it hard to understand how people who have such concern for the life of the unborn and for the welfare of Priests could have so little concern for other people. It has been said that we now have a smaller more committed church but I think we also have forgotten the virtue of compassion. The Pope in his sermon two weeks ago said of Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II that they ‘ were not afraid to look on the wounds of Jesus, to touch his torn hands and his pierced side. They were not ashamed of the flesh of Christ, they were not scandalised by him, by his cross; they did not despise the flesh of their brother cf Is 58:7 because they saw Jesus in every person who suffers and struggles’.

  8. #6 Nuala O’Driscoll
    I don’t know where he got the rabbit, Nuala – but it might well have been there as he worked in the GPO. It would have been in the 1950s sometime – before the myxomatosis hit Ireland. The rabbit was stolen around that time – someone climbed over the back wall at night.

  9. Con Devree says:

    It is difficult to measure the benefits of Papal visits. As with a whole lot of things our dispositions are pivotal. (“For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”)

    Speculation about others is an inexact science. A man whom I know rather well rejoiced to a certain extent in the 1979 visit but it had no impact. He continued on a path to something he has since repented of. He credits his later reconversion to Pope Saint John Paul II, but not to the visit.

    There are thousands of priests today, and some Bishops, who claim to have been inspired by the same Pope. The same applies to Pope Benedict and will apply to Pope Francis.

    Papal visits are a type of reminder advertising (e.g. Guinness) – “we are still here.” The 99 may remain largely unmoved but it’s worth it for the “1”. And a few hours/days of spiritual consolation (“All’s well??”), joy, is not the worst thing. On reflection, some may realise that it is “the feeling of what Is.”

    In relation to our priests – may they be not overworked as each defines such, and may they always have the respect and last word in our parishes/areas. Our Church needs unity but lives in and faces fraction. A certain level and quality of faith in a region will produce the number of priests roughly required. A priest acquaintance said to me recently: “it may well not be a case of having enough priests, but one of not having enough practising Catholics for the priests to serve.”

    We are where we are. Acts 2.42 beckons a bit closer in relation to the laity helping/enabling all interested Catholic neighbours avail of the sacramental life of the Church. (Transport and so on). This is the scenario God presents to us to work with. Let us lift up our hearts. Quick fixes may not be His thing.

  10. The priests are worn out doing funerals : I heard a rumour a few weeks ago that the Meath diocese has taken a decision (not in the news it seems in its website) that it will have no truck with deacons for such work. Perhaps someone could confirm. If that is the case, then that part of the church has no plans for the future. Or have they?
    Young people : Without faith leaders after confirmation at age 12?

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