WHEN Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in the middle of autumn 31 years ago the welcome was absolute, the joy considerable and genuine.
John Paul’s youth Mass held, like another benchmark Irish event, at Galway’s Ballybrit racecourse, seemed a moment of triumph. Now that celebration is tarnished by the fact that four of its central figures – Archbishop Marcinkus, Bishops Casey and Magee and Fr Cleary – are seen in a different, far less flattering light today. Their downfall is a fair analogy for the plight of modern Catholicism.
In 1979 there was no significant dissent. Official Ireland and public Ireland were as one in their enthusiasm to roll out the red carpet. Those who felt uncomfortable – yes, there were many – with the euphoria sweeping our Republic stayed quietly in the shadows, waiting for the moment to pass. However, the over-riding feeling was one of joy, welcome and great excitement at the prospect of having one of the great men of the age amongst us. What would his successor Benedict give for a such a welcome in Glasgow today?
He will be welcomed by committed Catholics but the vast majority of the Queen’s subjects will greet him with something between apathy and outright hostility.
It is not difficult to understand why. Like our Taoiseach the taciturn and authoritarian German seems unconvinced of the need to communicate or inspire. Like our Taoiseach Benedict seems at least as committed to power and preserving the institutions that surround him as he is to accepting the realities of today.
Benedict will see his brand of traditional, hierarchical, anti-woman, secretive Christianity celebrated by fewer and fewer Europeans or Americans. However, he may take comfort in the acceptance, however temporary, these ideals find in the developing world.
What kind of a welcome could Pope Benedict expect in Ireland today? It would more than likely be closer to the one he will find in Glasgow than the unquestioning celebration that greeted John Paul three decades ago.
It would be a tragedy however if the barely concealed hatred and aggression underlining so much of the opposition to his British visit were to become a part of an Irish response to Catholicism in particular and religion in general.
Though the Catholic Church’s scandals mean it is greatly diminished, it remains the church of a huge number of people. It, despite its outrages and corruption, defines their lives, behaviour and hopes. It is how they – we, if you are a believer – see themselves.
It is no longer acceptable to be racist or homophobic but many of those who insist on those boundaries feel no compunction to allow those who wish to live as their religious beliefs decree in peace to do just that.
In less than two years – June 2012 – the 50th International Eucharistic Congress will be held in Dublin. Though the state must not be as subservient as it was when the event was held in Ireland in 1932, it would be a tragedy if the failures of the institution of the Catholic Church made it easier than it already is to dismiss and deride the Church and most importantly its members because of their beliefs.
It is after all not a matter of religion, it is a matter of tolerance, respect and civility. This country after all, and despite the Catholic Church’s best efforts in the past,remains a republic. We must behave accordingly.
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