Ireland gets ready for first papal visit since 1979

By Henry Mcdonald
November 28, 2016

Pope John Paul II waves from his Popemobile in September 1979 in Ireland.
Photo by Anwar Hussein

Enda Kenny and his wife, Fionnuala with Pope Francis on 28 November.
Photo by Alessandra Tarantino

In 1979, in the early days of his papacy, Pope John Paul II landed at Dublin airport and kissed the ground as he disembarked from an Aer Lingus Boeing 747 named the St Patrick.

Ireland was then a bastion of Roman Catholicism in which the church’s moral authority was unquestioned, divorce was banned and homosexuality illegal.

Over three days, more than 2.5 million people came to see the Polish pontiff. More than 1 million of them packed Phoenix Park in Dublin for an outdoor mass, and hundreds of thousands lined the streets to welcome him. At a liturgy in Killineer, near Drogheda, the pope prayed for an end to the Troubles: “On my knees, I beg you to turn away from the path of violence and return to the ways of peace.”

Ireland has had to wait almost four decades for another papal visit, and in that time much has changed. When Pope Francis arrives in 2018 for a trip announced by the Irish prime minister on Monday, he will find a republic where gay marriage is legal, the Troubles are over and the Catholic church has been damaged, perhaps irreparably, by a deluge of sexual abuse and exploitation scandals.

He may even do what no pope has done before: cross the border into Northern Ireland. “I think there is no prospect whatsoever of him coming to Ireland and not coming to the North,” said Martin McGuinness, the region’s deputy first minister, who at the time of the last papal visit was a senior member of the IRA. Asked why he was so sure, McGuinness replied: “Because I’m around a long time and I know how these things work.”

Later, a spokesman for Northern Ireland’s first minister, Arlene Foster, said: “Were the pope to visit Northern Ireland in his capacity as head of state then the first minister would meet him.”

If he does cross the border, the pontiff will find a radically changed, more peaceful society than that which existed in 1979, when it was deemed far too dangerous for John Paul II to travel there. During the year of his visit, the IRA ratcheted up its violent campaign, culminating in the murder of Lord Mountbatten in County Sligo and the deaths of 18 British paratroopers on the same day in August. In 1988 the then leader of the Democratic Unionist party, Ian Paisley, denounced John Paul II as the antichrist.

South of the border, too, things have changed. Francis’s political host for the visit, the taoiseach Enda Kenny, launched a blistering attack on the global Catholic leadership in 2011, accusing the Vatican of trying to play down the gravity of a report into widespread clerical sex abuse in the Cloyne diocese and saying that “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism … dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day”.

Kenny’s audience with Francis at the Vatican on Monday, after which the papal visit was announced, was seen as a bridge-building exercise.

The Irish Catholic hierarchy will see the arrival of the popular Argentinian pontiff as a means of reasserting the authority of the church. But many Irish people believe the church has a long way to go before it can recover its credibility. Some victims of clerical sex abuse warned the papal visit would be used by conservative religious forces to prevent the further secularisation of Ireland.

Sarah Clancy, who remembers seeing John Paul II at an outdoor mass in Galway as a seven-year-old, said she was mesmerised by the man speaking to hundreds of thousands of people in an accent that was unfamiliar to her. But she rebelled against the church and blames her struggle with bisexuality in her 20s on “the culture of shame that Irish authoritarian Catholicism promoted”.

The church in Ireland will hope the memory of Francis’s visit will be less bitter. “Pope Francis has been an important voice for the young, the poor and disadvantaged,” Kenny tweeted. “Glad he will visit Ireland in 2018.”


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