At this remove, it all too often looks like some of the other mass-participation rallies held across Europe in that darkening decade. The congress celebrated the unquestioning belief and absolute obedience that supported an Irish theocracy. That festival was a moment when the power of Catholicism in Ireland was impervious and imperial.
Some 22 years later, in 1954, Irish Catholicism celebrated a Marian Year. The grottoes dotted across this Republic are a legacy of the expressions of faith so freely made that year. A quarter of a century later — 1979 — the wonderfully charismatic Pope John Paul II got an ecstatic reception when he visited. Irish Catholicism celebrated with abandon and imagined John Paul’s inspiring visit would silence dissent, recall backsliders to the fold, secure its place at the epicentre of our society and copperfasten its authority for at least another generation. How unimaginably wrong that hope was.
John Paul’s visit was a Phyrric victory and presaged decades of decline, possibly terminal decline, for Irish Catholicism. For many Irish people of a certain age the image of Bishop Eamon Casey and Fr Micheal Cleary cheerleading at the youth mass in Galway will never fade, as it epitomised the dishonesty and hypocrisy — and disdain for its ordinary members — so alive in Irish Catholicism then. Both championed traditional religious strictures. Neither easily conceded to any view other than their own. Both vehemently opposed liberalising legislation. Yet, infamously, both had partners, and both were fathers. Even though they lived a pathetic lie, their behaviour seemed harmless enough, when set against the horrors revealed by report after report on clerical child sex abuse, the active evil, hidden away for so long by a Church that imagined itself beyond the reach of our Constitution. Not only did those scandals push Catholicism to the edge of Irish society, they denied some of those whose faith had been shaped by the legacies of 1932, 1954 and 1979 the great comfort their belief afforded them.
Those events, like it or not, set the historical context and tone for the August 2018 visit of Pope Francis which was confirmed by Taoiseach Enda Kenny after a 23-minute meeting with the pontiff in the Vatican earlier this week. Of course, there will be more celebratory, more uplifting influences but Francis will visit a country that bears little or no resemblance to the one charmed by his predecessor almost 40 years ago. He will visit a country where the interaction between his Church and this State, on education, health and abortion are increasingly fraught and probably unsustainable. He will recognise that but it is not certain Mr Kenny’s Government will act to give meaning to that ongoing change.
Pope Francis will be very welcome, but the State’s role in his visit must reflect the changed reality of today’s increasingly secular, multicultural Ireland. Pope Francis will visit a Republic, not a theocracy and that distance must inform any arrangements Government makes to facilitate his visit.