A major security operation swings into action today as Pope Francis arrives in Ireland for what will be the most heavily scrutinised trip of his papacy.
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims are making their way to events in Knock and Dublin in a massive logistical exercise that involves thousands of volunteers and the deployment of thousands more gardaí, army members, stewards, and emergency personnel.
Many members of the public who are not taking part in the events face significant traffic and access restrictions as a result, in some cases until Tuesday morning.
Transport and public safety are not the only challenges facing the organisers, however, as the Pope is coming to Ireland at a time when the Church’s authority is seriously diminished by unrelenting child sexual abuse scandals.
Its own top man on child protection, Boston cardinal Sean O’Malley, who chairs the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, was due to speak in Ireland yesterday but had to pull out to deal with criticisms of his office’s failures to act on warnings about sexual offending by now-retired cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
Cardinal O’Malley sent a message to be read at the event at the World Meeting of Families in Dublin in his absence, in which he describes clerical child sex abuse as “the most crucial issue facing our Church” and suggests that the very survival of the Church is at stake because of it.
All endeavours at evangelisation and other great works will be dependent upon our ability to own our crimes and failures and to make the protection of children and vulnerable adults our number one priority,” he said.
Pope Francis, who will meet some survivors of clerical abuse during his visit, is under pressure to make a significant statement to try to restore confidence in his papacy, as a huge international media presence awaits his words.
There is also much anticipation around how he will address the social changes that have taken place in Ireland in recent times, with the referenda on marriage equality and abortion demonstrating the ebbing influence of Catholic thinking in a country that almost unanimously kneeled before the last Pope to come here, John Paul II in 1979.
Victim and survivor groups from Ireland and overseas, who have gathered to protest the Pope’s visit and his failure to effect substantive change in Vatican thinking on the issue, remained unimpressed.
Abuse survivor and campaigner Marie Collins, who quit her seat on the pontifical commission last year after its recommendations were repeatedly ignored, said there were powerful people in the Vatican who not only resisted changes but denied the need for it. She urged Pope Francis to tackle them head-on.
The Pope must know who they are. It’s these people who must be dismissed and dismissed immediately,” she said.
“The Pope has got powers over and above everybody else and he really needs to face down this resistance.”
Thousands of people have signalled they will be attending an alternative event in support of victims timed to coincide with the start of the papal Mass in the Phoenix Park tomorrow.
The Stand4Truth event has been organised by clerical abuse survivor Colm O’Gorman, founder of One In Four and a director of Amnesty Ireland.
After performances and speeches at the Garden of Remembrance, the attendance will walk to the former Magdalene laundry at Sean McDermott St to leave messages at the sculpture that commemorates the former residents.
Other public figures, including Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council, and politicians including People Before Profit officials, are boycotting meetings with the Pope today in objection to Church policies.
People Before Profit is holding a gathering to call for the complete separation of Church and State this evening, at a time when the Pope will be preparing to attend a major concert in Croke Park.
Despite the controversies, it is expected that more than 1m people who are not physically taking part in the Pope’s visit will follow it on RTÉ radio and television, which will be covering all events beginning with his arrival at Dublin Airport this morning.
Pope Francis will travel directly to Áras an Uachtaráin to see the President and then move on to Dublin Castle, where he will have a brief private talk with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and meet politicians, diplomats, and representatives of charities and civil society.
Afterwards, he will go to St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral before being brought on a drive through the city centre to greet the public. He then has a private visit to the Capuchin Day Centre, where he will meet homeless people. His next appearance is in Croke Park but it is expected he will use the time before then to meet with abuse victims.
Tomorrow he flies into Knock Airport and will preside over services at Knock Shrine from around 10am before flying back to Dublin for Mass in the Phoenix Park at 2.30pm and later returning to Rome.