Public act of contrition helps to clear the air for a festival of the faithful

Public act of contrition helps to clear the air for a festival of the faithful
Liam McBurney/PA Wire

It was all a bit last-minute but Pope Francis had something important to do before saying Mass in the Phoenix Park. He had to go to confession.

Not in the oppressive dark of a spooky confessional, but out in the fresh air with fields before him and open sky above.

Not with the breath of an invisible priest wafting through a distorting grid but in front of a crowd of unhidden, expectant faces numbering into the hundreds of thousands.

Flags are flown from the plane carrying Pope Francis as it arrives at Dublin International Airport, at the start of his visit to Ireland. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Flags are flown from the plane carrying Pope Francis as it arrives at Dublin International Airport, at the start of his visit to Ireland. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Six times he asked them for forgiveness — for the hurt caused to survivors, for the actions of the perpetrators, for the exploitation of those forced to labour in institutions, for the demonisation of single mothers, for the members of the hierarchy who kept quiet, for the failure to respond with compassion and justice.

He could have thrown in the bad language that he famously used the night before too, but that had gone down well so he was already off the hook on that one.

The rest of his unbosoming was also well received, with the crowd erupting into applause. So taken were they with this confession that they forgot to dish out any penance.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin had put it up to the Pope, welcoming the pilgrims with a lyrical introduction full of references to bleak weather and hopes for spring.

At first it appeared to refer to the conditions that left the crowd with well-soaked rain ponchos billowing in the wind, but quickly the realisation dawned that he was talking about the abuse scandals that hung over the papal visit like a Venetian fog.

Now that it had been cleared sufficiently for the Pope to see his way through to the end of the trip, he began the Mass proper.

This was what the crowd of disputed numbers had come for. Some of them had been up since the small hours, travelling across the country.

They’d beaten their fitbit record by 9am, had their prime spots picked by 10am, their picnics raided by 11am, and their cardboard self-assembly chairs reduced to papier mache by noon.

A 12-hour programme of slickly produced music and song had been arranged to distract from the ticking of the clock, but when the Popemobile came into view at 2.30pm, the excitement of having Pope Francis whizz by, one hand waving while the other gripped a safety bar for dear life, watched by pilgrims with one hand waving while the other gripped a mobile phone as if it was life itself, was palpable.

Photos taken and elephants in the room put at least temporarily out in the yard, the Mass was able to proceed.

It was a perfectly polished ceremony with nods to the Ireland of tradition and of today. Emma Mhic Mhathuna, whose battle against cancer and cover-ups has captured the country’s hearts, brought up one of the gifts in the offertory procession.

Also in the procession was Olive Foley, widow of Munster rugby star Anthony ‘Axel’ Foley, and representatives of Ireland’s African community, the bereaved from the Omagh bombing and the All Are Welcome Mass run monthly in Dublin for LGBT people and their families and friends.

Pope Francis’s homily was uncontroversial and his concluding remarks gracious.

The inevitable delays, as the perfectly ordered corrals and painstakingly arranged departure routes turned into a sea of good-natured confusion, gave pilgrims time to share some reflections.

“Amazing” was a word many of them used to sum up the experience.

“Awesome,” declared 87-year-old Mary Fingleton from Dublin, who’d come with her sister Kathleen Cashin from Charleville, Mary’s daughter, son-in-law and their two children who’d disappeared to collect greenery from the altar displays as a memento of the day.

Mary was using a wheelchair and could not praise highly enough the organisation of the event.

“Mum wasn’t very encouraged by all the talk of how hard it would be to get here but we stood our ground,” said daughter Beatrice, who was pleased Francis addressed the abuse scandals.

It was very important that he said what he did and try to put things back on the right track. There was a lot of apprehension leading up to this and I think he cleared the air very well.

Kathleen, who made the even longer journey from Charleville to Drogheda in 1979, agreed.

“It was beautiful,” she said. “I’m very glad I came.”

Chris Murray, aged 20, from Letterkenny was overwhelmed. He plans to enter a seminary in the next few years and found the day very emotional.

“I’m hoping this will be a turning point for the Catholic Church,” he said.

The Meacle family from Mountbolus, Co Offaly, felt the same.

It was very emotional,” said mum Annette. “I thought it would be more hostile because there was quite a negative build-up.

“The media had something to do with that,” husband Brian couldn’t resist interjecting.

“But the Pope said what needed to be said,” continued Annette, “and hopefully we can move on.”

As the crowd of uncertain size moved on, no-one needed to say again that Ireland was a country changed utterly since 1979.

Pope Francis leaves St Mary's Pro Cathedral in Dublin, after meeting with recently-married couples, and couples preparing for the Sacrament of Marriage. Pic: PA
Pope Francis leaves St Mary's Pro Cathedral in Dublin, after meeting with recently-married couples, and couples preparing for the Sacrament of Marriage. Pic: PA

Nobody questioned could imagine the next newborn boy in the family being named after the pontiff for example. Except for the Coveneys.

Tánaiste Simon revealed that when he and his family went to Dublin Airport to greet the Pope on Saturday, youngest daughter Annalise had a sudden bout of cold feet and announced she wouldn’t present the bouquet as planned.

“We promised her pizza, the use of my iPad, anything — and she wouldn’t budge.”

So the Tánaiste resorted to the time-honoured political tool of bribery.

“I said she could have a kitten. So now we’re getting a kitten. And we’re calling him Francis.”

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