Pope Francis’s planned weekend visit to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families comes at a tumultuous time for the Catholic Church around the globe.
Last week’s grand jury report out of Pennsylvania, uncovering years of child sexual abuse at the hands of hundreds of priests across the state, is the latest entry in a laundry list of scandals that have rocked church leaders and parishioners in recent years. In Ireland, historically among the most Catholic countries in the world, churchgoers are experiencing their own nationwide reckoning with sexual abuse of children by priests and a subsequent, systematic cover-up that allowed such abuse to happen.
The embattled pope’s visit comes less than a week after he issued a 2,000-word apology for the church’s role in the international sex abuse crisis. Though critics say his missive lacked concrete solutions for dealing with this crisis, it’ll be his first opportunity to make public amends with Catholics both in Ireland and around the world. But sex abuse is not the only issue that will be on Irish Catholics’ minds as the pope makes his arrival.
The past few years have seen this once-devout country shaken by a series of scandals within the Catholic Church, including the revelations of forced labor and systemic physical abuse at many of the country’s Catholic orphanages and care homes. Meanwhile, the country has, in recent years, become increasingly secular and liberal, countering traditional, conservative Catholic social policy.
A country in which divorce, homosexuality, and abortion were all illegal has now transformed into the first country in Europe to legalize same-sex marriage by referendum. It is a country that overturned its historic abortion ban just a few months ago, something that would have been all but unthinkable one generation ago. If one thing is clear, it’s that the Ireland of 2018 is not the Ireland of nearly four decades ago, when Pope John Paul II became the first sitting pope to visit the country.
The clerical sex abuse crisis
In the past few decades, the role of the church in Ireland has changed dramatically. For most of the 20th century, Catholicism and Irish identity were inseparable from one another. Catholicism was part of the fabric underpinning all social institutions. The church ran several major government-funded institutions, such as schools and organizations, and contraception was illegal as late as 1980.
But starting in the 1990s, the clerical child sex abuse crisis began to change all that. Revelations emerged — many through documentary series like 1999’s RTE program States of Fear — that physical, sexual, and emotional abuse was rampant and systemic at the country’s vast network of government-operated, Catholic-run schools and orphanages throughout the 20th century.
In 2009, after a 10-year investigation, a government-mandated Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse found that 500 male and female former students came forward with claims of sexual or physical abuse. Irish bishops publicly accepted responsibility for their role in the abuse, including perpetuating a culture of toxic secrecy and shame. However, the church has been slow to compensate victims. A 2002 bill mandating payment of 1.3 billion euros to victims across Ireland resulted in the government functionally covering the cost of the reparations, while the church only paid about 128 million euros.
During the 2000s, revelations also emerged about the “Magdalene Laundries,” institutions run by Catholic nuns that forced at least 10,000 “fallen women” — former sex workers or those who had children out of wedlock — into slave labor conditions, pocketing the profits for the church, throughout the early and mid-20th century. Earlier this summer, 220 survivors of the laundries gathered in Dublin for a state-sponsored conference dealing with how best to support victims going forward.
And last year, investigators discovered a mass grave of 800 children outside a former Catholic care home in County Galway. Like many other similar institutions, the care home, which closed in 1961, separated unmarried mothers from their babies in order to adopt them out to more “respectable” families. It interred any such children who died on site in unmarked graves.
These mass reckonings have decreased trust in the church, which has contributed to the country becoming increasingly secular and politically liberal. A referendum like the one in May, which overwhelmingly overturned the country’s ban on abortion, would have been unthinkable in pre-crisis Ireland.
Meanwhile, Mass attendance rates are in free fall. In 2002, according to the Iona Institute, 54 percent of Irish adults attended a weekly Mass. In 2016, that number had fallen to 36 percent.
Pope Francis will find a tough crowd in Ireland
Over the weekend, the pope will travel to both Dublin and the Catholic pilgrimage shrine of Knock, in County Mayo. He will attend the World Meeting of Families, a Catholic conference that takes place every three years, each time in a different city.
In 1979, when Pope John Paul II made the only other papal visit to Ireland in history, divorce, homosexuality, and abortion were all illegal. Decades later, Ireland became the first country in Europe to legalize same-sex marriage by a referendum vote in 2015. The country has had an openly gay prime minister, Leo Varadkar, since 2017. And this May, the country overturned its historic abortion ban by 2-1 in a referendum.
“When the pope arrives in Ireland this weekend,” wrote Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole, “he will find a Catholic church not just falling to ruin, but in some respects beyond repair.” The Catholic Church, for many young Irish citizens, is no longer considered a trustworthy part of the fabric of national life. It no longer informs the country’s laws on issues like abortion or same-sex marriage. And, for increasing numbers of citizens, it’s no longer a part of their personal experience of faith.
In 1979, John Paul II was greeted by an adoring crowd of 300,000. This weekend, however, Pope Francis will face down several groups of protesters. Colm O’Gorman, the executive director of Amnesty International Ireland and a survivor of clerical sex abuse, is leading the “Stand4Truth” rally in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance in protest of the church’s history of clerical sex abuse. Thousands of protesters are expected to join in solidarity.
The “Say Nope to the Pope” campaign is encouraging those who want to protest the church’s legacy of abuse in Ireland to reserve tickets for Francis’s papal Mass but not show up, diminishing his crowd’s size. Mary Coll, who organized the campaign, told the British newspaper the Guardian
This is not an anti-religion thing, it’s not about disrespect for people’s beliefs or their right to practise any particular belief. It’s about people like myself who were raised as Catholics, who were practising Catholics, who suddenly went: ‘Hang on a second, these are terrible wrongs we’re hearing about.’ And we waited and we waited, and the church did nothing.
A week to go. Will you #Stand4Truth Our gathering is for everyone who wishes to stand in solidarity with those harmed by the actions of the institutional Roman Catholic Church. Who wishes to stand for truth,for justice,for love. For the Ireland we must be. https://t.co/pJkMCZhnmh pic.twitter.com/iwigOJcQ7v— Colm O'Gorman (@Colmogorman) August 18, 2018
That said, the reaction to Francis in Ireland has been cautiously optimistic. Despite the decline in their numbers, Irish young people remain the most religious young people in Europe. And a full 500,000 people are expected to attend Francis’s papal Mass.
The pope’s visit is expected to include some acknowledgment of the church’s current crisis. According to Vatican spokesperson Greg Burke, Francis will light a candle for victims of clerical sex abuse in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Dublin, and will meet privately with at least five abuse survivors throughout the trip. Burke stressed that no details would be released about these meetings, including the identity of the survivors, and that it would be up to the survivors whether and how to speak out.
“The important thing for the pope is to listen,” Burke said.