For one section of Ireland the Papal visit was their chance to come together and affirm what they believe in, notwithstanding the wrongs done to so many, writes Michael Clifford in Phoenix Park
JUST before 2.30pm rain stopped falling on the Phoenix Park. All morning and into the afternoon, as the masses assembled from all corners, the rain had come in various guises. First it bucketed down, then fell in light curtains and in the last hour it picked up in blustery squalls.
Then it just stopped as if somebody up there said no more, they’ve shown their still up for it.
On cue, the popemobile came out into view and people began to stand up from their seats, lever themselves to their feet and strain their necks. The main act had kicked off. The Holy Father was setting off on his rounds.
And off he went in the Popemobile, weaving his way through the vast network of pens that had been set out across the park to ensure that the faithful would gather in order and safety.
As he moved through the crowd the cheering drowned out the sound of O’Riada being played on the organ over the vast PA system. Down towards the rear of the vast crowd it went, and speculation was rife as to the route back to the alter that would be taken.
In the end, he split the crowd up the middle and made his way back, the smile constant, the wave practiced, yet both coming across as nothing less than genuine.
Through the late morning and into the afternoon the streets around the park began to thicken with a procession of the devout. It was an extraordinary sight in this country, in this time.
Commerce was nowhere to be seen, Mammon having conceded victory to God for a day. There were no stalls, no posters, no commemorative shirts or flags. There were no apples, oranges, balloons nor the last two choc ices on sale.
There was no alcohol, nor anybody the worse for wear having imbibed earlier. Instead, the crowd was good natured, content. They were “getting” mass of a Sunday as it used to be known, but just not any old mass and the rain wasn’t going to dampen the occasion.
En route through the park knots of people sheltered under large trees, tucking into sandwiches and the odd flask of tea. The Pope may be a rock star to some, but the annual trip to Slane Castle was never as sedate, nor as inclined towards natural, as opposed to chemical, highs.
At the venue itself, the only stalls were a few lines providing food and tea and coffee. Apart from that, there were, scattered across the plains of the Park, little white canvas tents, each topped with a spire. The only wares of offer here were the body and blood of Christ as they were set up as “communion chapels” from where volunteers were eventually sent out to serve the host.
Contrary to the stereotype, or some expectations, the gathering included all age profiles. There was a proliferation of nuclear families, complete with packed lunches and the folding chairs.
The number was also swelled with a fair to middling contingent of those who were in the country exclusively for the World Meeting of Families. More than one Spanish national flag was being carried.
At least three people approached by this member of the media declined to talk, firmly referencing what they believed was the distorted picture of their faith being peddled in various news mediums.
The impression was conveyed from a number among the congregation that they believe themselves to be unrepresented today. One woman, who said she had travelled from Cavan, swung her arm around at the crowd advancing up through the park.
“Look at this turnout, and all the negative press. What does that say?” She declined to give a name, but the suspicion is she spoke for many.
There is a recognition among the faithful — later explicitly referenced by the Pope — that great wrongs have been perpetrated within the Church. But they also feel that the institution’s role in their faith has been lost in the current narrative.
One might well posit the theory that there is a completely natural backlash still in train as a result of the decades of crimes and cover-ups. In an atmosphere of anger and pain, perspective can, in the eyes of some, temporarily go missing.
Aidan Ffrench from Bray was here 39 years ago as a 20-year-old student. Now he’s back again.
“My brother was in Galway in 79 as well,” he says. “But now I’m the only one in my family who’s coming here today. I suppose that’s indicative of where the Church is with a lot of people, but I’m at home with my faith.”
A landscape architect, he had been involved in designing a contemplative garden in Ballsbridge for the World Meeting of Families. He recognises the pain caused by the abuse scandals but says the Mass is showing another side to the country.
“There is still a residual spiritual hunger among the Irish,” he said.
And all around during the Mass, the devotion was obvious. The decision to reference the crimes of the past set the scene for atonement as far as the faithful were concerned. Pope Francis asked for forgiveness for the “abuses in Ireland, abuses of power, conscience, and sexual abuses perpetrated by those with roles of responsibility in the church.”
Just before that, in beginning the Mass, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin referenced the changed Ireland and all that had emerged since the last Papal visit to this country.
He pointed out how the congregation this time around was much smaller, and in reality it was probably less than the half million he claimed to be present yesterday. But for one section of Ireland, this was their day, their chance to come together as a tribe, to affirm what they believe in, notwithstanding the wrongs done to so many.