Just a Thought - Pope Francis' Visit To Ireland.
Pope Francis is set to visit Ireland in a few days: 25-26 August. The occasion is an international event that takes place every three years - 'The World Meeting of the Families'. This year the theme is 'The Gospel of the Family: Joy for the World'.The visit will last a mere 36 hours, but Francis will have his time full with various events and meetings.
Among those meetings will be one with the survivors of clerical abuse. Perhaps nowhere in the Catholic world has the pain of that crisis been more acutely felt as in Ireland. For generations, Catholicism has been synonymous with Irishness and this has contributed to the overarching sense of betrayal many Irish people feel about the Church.
Francis will have to tread carefully. Benedict XVI, his predecessor, wrote to Irish Catholics in 2010 about the Church's failure to tackle abuse: 'It has obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing'. Can we expect something as strong from Francis?
What he will say will be analysed intensely. By some it will be judged as inadequate. At one level, that is hardly surprising - nothing anyone can say can heal the wounds of those who have been hurt. However, sadly, there is another group of people who are deaf to anything the Pope will say simply because they are hostile to everything the Catholic Church stands for. This has been evident in the group's trying to buy up thousands of tickets, which they have no intention of using. Isn't that rather petty and mean-spirited?
While four out of five citizens in the Republic of Ireland describe themselves as Catholics, Ireland is not a Catholic country anymore - not really. Many people are no longer committed. Many have decided that they are no longer interested in buying what the Church has to offer. They just get on with their lives. It's as if the Catholic Church has replaced England as the 'auld enemy' - a term we once reserved for the nation the Irish believed was responsible for all of the ills they have suffered for 700 years. I just wonder if that is a lazy and convenient way for Irish people to avoid asking deep questions about the nature of Irish society.
There can be no denying that there is much to criticize the Church about. There have been so many failures in the institutional church - so much lack of accountability. Its history in the 20th century alone has been, in part, one of cruelty, abuse and arrogance. But that is not the whole story. In part, it is also a history of education, of caring for the sick, elderly, of everyday acts of kindness and holiness. Even to-day - thought depleted in numbers - priests, religious, laypeople work with some of the most isolated and vulnerable communities in Ireland and abroad. There are hundreds of good causes that rely on their quiet and seldom-spoken-about work.
If the Irish church stands humiliated under the weight of its terrible failures, it also stands on the shoulders of ordinary people of heroic virtue - people who in every generation have kept the faith alive for nearly 1600 years. So to protest the first and ignore the second is indeed to ignore history. Our one-eyed nationalism that once marked our irrational attitude to all things British should not be transferred to the Catholic Church.
There will be great warmth and enthusiasm shown to Pope Francis. I just pray that his personality, who he represents, what he says and does in the few short days of his visit will build bridges and again demonstrate the essence of what lies at the heart of what Jesus of Nazareth once brought, and continues to bring, to our world and to Ireland.