Pope Will Visit a Changed Ireland. How Much Difference Can He Make?

A cross overlooking the eastern Irish coastline in Bray.

MURRISK, Ireland — On the sacred mountain where St. Patrick is said to have fasted before banishing Ireland’s snakes into the sea, Geraldine Reilly walked past grazing sheep, a statue of the nation’s patron saint and a sign informing pilgrims how to gain indulgences through praying “for the intentions of our Holy Father the Pope.”

Ms. Reilly said she hoped to go one better this month by praying directly with Pope Francis in Dublin at the World Meeting of Families, during his visit on Aug. 25 and 26. “He seems more with people,” said Ms. Reilly, 60, from the small town of Kilcogy. “And with the changes.”

Ireland has had no shortage of changes over the last 40 years. The Irish church was once the bedrock of European Catholicism, exporting priests around the world, while shaping its home country’s national identity, laws and culture. In 1979, when John Paul II made the last papal visit here, divorce, homosexual acts and abortion were all illegal.

But in the intervening decades a clerical sexual abuse scandal, the tearing of children away from unwed mothers and other awful abuses against vulnerable Catholics have hastened a blooming of secular modernity and the evaporation of the church’s authority. Francis comes now to a country that was Europe’s first to legalize gay marriage by a popular vote, that has a gay prime minister, and that in May overwhelmingly voted to strip a ban on abortion from its Constitution.

The big question, then, is what difference, if any, Francis can make in a country that has become the bellwether of the church’s erosion in the West. Some within the church argue that the first pope from South America should not get bogged down on an island that appears to belong to the church’s past.

But other prelates and advocates of survivors of sexual abuse believe that this visit, coinciding as it does with new and explosive revelations of sexual abuse and cover-ups in the United States, Chile and Ireland, presents Francis with a providential opportunity to acknowledge the systematic sins of the church hierarchy and Vatican bureaucracy in keeping abuses secret, and actually introduce measures to do something about it.

Ahead of the pope’s visit, Ireland’s leaders seemed to be applying pressure to make that happen.

This month, The Irish Times published a front-page article quoting a former president of the country, Mary McAleese, who said that in 2003, the Vatican’s then secretary of state, Angelo Sodano, had asked her to block the government from accessing church documents during an inquiry into clerical sex abuse. She said she had immediately stopped the conversation and told him that she “thought it extraordinarily inappropriate and very, very dangerous to the church.”

“It’s a shame that she has to do that, but I’m not surprised,” Tara Murray, 39, said the morning the story came out as she walked in Galway in front of St. Patrick’s, one of the 90 percent of Irish primary schools of which the church is owner or patron, despite government funding. Ms. Murray said the effort of Cardinal Sodano, now the dean of the College of Cardinals, to seal the sex abuse records was “unbelievable” and just the sort of thing that had gutted the church here.

“People just stopped going. Even people in my parents’ generation,” said Ms. Murray, who had priests in her family and who voted to change the Constitution on abortion.

A few days later, Dermot Ahern, a former foreign minister, said to similar outrage that Cardinal Sodano had suggested to him in 2004 that the Irish government should indemnify the church against court-ordered compensation for victims of abuse.

The Vatican has not responded to the allegations. But Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, recognized the danger of the abuse scandal in 2010, when he sent an extraordinary pastoral letter to Catholics in Ireland sharing in their “sense of betrayal,” but also lamenting a “secularization of Irish society” that had prompted “a loss of respect for the church.”

That blaming of secularization for Ireland’s drift, rather than the church’s abuses, is still prevalent within the Vatican hierarchy.

“It’s an historical evolution that you have to know how to accept. Society goes like this,” said Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, a former president of the governatorate of Vatican City State. He recalled the biblical story of Gideon, whose large army diminished to a “strong, decisive” few. “So now the church of Ireland loses a little bit of what was its ethnic constitution but gains a more spiritual element. Who is Catholic there is Catholic not because he is Irish, but because he believes.”

Catholic traditionalists, who argue that Francis has confused true believers with his silence ahead of the abortion referendum and with his inclusive message to gay people and the divorced, are holding a parallel meeting days before he arrives. They are incensed that the Vatican has invited the Rev. James Martin, an American Jesuit priest, to give a talk at the official meeting about how parishes can better accept and reach out to gay Catholics.

It is just that sort of outreach, though, that has encouraged some Irish Catholics who believe that restoration lies in the church refashioning itself as an inclusive place where community is forged and solidarity is found in complicated times. Such a step, they say, is necessary before any new foundation can be put down.

“The triumphant, dominant church your predecessor John Paul II found here in 1979 is not just ruined. It is irreparable. It destroyed itself,” Fintan O’Toole, a columnist for The Irish Times, wrote in a special Letters to Francis section of the paper that also included painful testimonials from abuse survivors. Mr. O’Toole has argued that Ireland is now left with “a religious rust belt” of empty churches that once powered the country.

But instead of writing off the church as lost, the pope’s allies have taken a longer view, placing Irish Catholicism in a bumpy continuum of ups and downs.

An essay this month in the Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit journal approved by the Vatican and edited by a close ally of Francis, argues that Ireland’s rock-ribbed Catholicism in part benefited from the absence of modernity. The fervent Catholicism that defined Ireland for so long was in part a response to English oppression and Anglican rule, which crushed Gaelic language, culture and identity.

Less than a third of Irish Catholics attended Mass regularly before 1840, but the famine that killed a million Irish and forced the emigration of a million more increased fervor in hard-hit rural Catholic areas, the essay argues. Church attendance eventually rose to 90 percent in the 20th century and priests, who were more educated than their flocks, took leadership positions in all facets of Irish life and were imbued with great authority.

But the abuse of that authority ultimately helped drive Pope Francis’s flock away. Today church attendance hovers around 30 percent to 35 percent, surveys show.

“It hasn’t treated its people well over the last generations and things have come to the fore,” said Catherine Gilchrist, 43, a pharmacist from County Down in Northern Ireland, where St. Patrick is said to be buried.

She watched her children play on a tidal beach off Omey Island, where pilgrims once sought cures from the plague at the holy well of St. Fechin. “My grandmother had it, that blind faith,” Ms. Gilchrist said. “When my uncle had asthma attacks, she would give him holy water instead of an inhaler.”

She was excited about the arrival of Francis, she said, because he seemed “modern” and gave her church a chance to put parishioners above the hierarchy.

“The priests before, they were put on a pedestal,” she said. “And did things they shouldn’t have done.”

The failure to understand that loss of authority by some Irish bishops, who have continued to focus on issues such as contraception and in vitro fertilization ahead of the pope’s visit, has infuriated many Irish people.

“They are so tone deaf,” said Sarah Emerson, 43, as she walked in front of St. Andrew’s, a Catholic church in Dublin. Despite being raised Catholic, she said that to her the pope’s coming was only a “massive inconvenience.” It would interfere with her marathon training in Phoenix Park, where Francis will say Mass.

There is, nevertheless, also real enthusiasm for the pope’s visit.

Mary Shanahan, 67, said her son delighted her by getting her tickets to see Francis. On vacation from Cork to visit an ancient Celtic cross in Drumcliffe Church, outside Sligo, where William Butler Yeats is buried, she said she was going to see Francis not because of his charisma or the direction he was taking the church, but because “he’s Christ’s vicar on Earth.”

Others were drawn especially to Francis. At the foot of Croagh Patrick, the sacred mountain, Padraig Sheridan, 58, said he appreciated Francis’ “bubbly character” and said that he was eager to get to Dublin to see a pope who was a “people’s man.”

It wouldn’t be Mr. Sheridan’s first papal Mass. He recalled being in the crowd of 300,000 who attended John Paul II’s Mass for young people in Galway in 1979, but allowed that things had changed drastically since then.

Instead of his local college ordaining dozens of young priests, his parish now had to share “a lovely guy from Nigeria, Father Joseph” with neighboring towns. He said that while he had voted against changing the Constitution on abortion, the result of the referendum didn’t surprise him, given how much Ireland had changed, and said that he didn’t blame Francis for not speaking up before the vote in May.

“They would probably have told him to go mind his own business,” he said.

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