A farewell to the Pope

In Ireland the sheen has come off the Catholic church. But the country needs to go beyond consumer capitalism too, says Éilis Ryan

Pope visits Ireland: A woman attends a vigil at the site of the Tuam babies graveyard where the bodies of 796 babies where uncovered at a site of a former Catholic home for unmarried mothers and their children.
A woman attends a vigil at the site of the Tuam babies graveyard where the bodies of 796 babies where uncovered at a site of a former Catholic home for unmarried mothers and their children. Photo: REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

In Ireland, John Paul is a name associated with a very, very specific generation of young men.

In 1980, the year after the Pope visited, one in ten Irish baby boys were given the name. The previous year, 1979, 1.25 million people attended an outdoor Mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. Four other public Masses around the country attracted a combined crowd of 1.5 million people, while 750,000 lined the streets to view his Dublin parade.

It’d be fair to estimate over half the country’s population saw the Pope in ‘79.

Ireland’s papal devotion in 1979 underpinned its position as the Catholic Church’s crowning glory in Western Europe. And as the century progressed, it became a last outpost of optimism that developed nations might not all be lost to secularism.

When Pope Francis aid Mass in the Phoenix Park this weekend, the Vatican estimates 300,000 attended. But this figure included many from overseas who travelled to Ireland to attend the Church’s World Meeting of Families.

This is no surprise. Even though 4 in every 5 residents in Ireland continue to identify as Catholic in the nation’s census, popular votes for gay marriage and liberalized abortion laws in recent years are evidence that Ireland’s subservience to the Vatican on matters of politics and society is long lost.

The Vatican’s special position

So it is fair to say nobody ever expected the 2018 papal visit to produce a generation of Irish babies named Francis.

And yet, six months ago, many might have predicted that the Papal visit would pass off without fanfare, celebrated by those whose faith remains central to the lives, and largely un-noted by the many for whom the Catholic Church is an anachronistic, largely irrelevant institution.

Instead, those who are not attending have become increasingly angered by the visit, for a number of reasons.

The first is the sheer scale of state involvement in orchestrating and funding the visit. Large swathes of the city will be closed even to residents’ cars, and lined with barricades. 1,000 public doctors and nurses are required to work specifically supporting the visit. The Vatican’s yellow and white flag flies from the public flagpoles that line the Liffey’s quays.

The costs are predicted to run to about a million euro an hour, with the state estimated to pick up half the €35 million plus tab. In a country with 4,000 homeless children, a hospital system in crisis, and wages which have stagnated in spite of spiralling housing costs, spending in the region of €20 million to facilitate a private religious event appears frivolous and downright sectarian to many.

The government has justified this expenditure by claiming the visit has been treated just like the visit of any head of state – for which, for reasons of diplomatic protocol, we pay a share of the cost.

But such poor judgement has once again raised the spectre of the scale of church involvement in the state and public services in Ireland.

Over 90 per cent of state-funded primary schools remain owned and managed by the Catholic Church. Two orders of nuns – the Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of Charity – have received over €4 billion to run (via their management companies) public hospitals, just in the past decade. In both the schools and hospitals, a religious ethos continues to permeate the public services they are funded by the state to provide. To many, the fact that the State is willing to use tens of millions to prop up a private, religious event, is further evidence that, where Ireland’s population has moved on, our government and bureaucracy would prefer to continue as if nothing has changed since 1979.


The second factor, is the brutal shadow of sexual, physical and emotional abuse, inside and outside residential institutions, which continues to reveal itself.

A fortnight ago, a damning grand jury report in Pennsylvania published evidence of abuse carried out by 300 clergy across six dioceses, a systematic cover up for Bishops and Cardinals, and extensive attempts to undermine and silence victims. One episode involved a seven year old boy being raped to the point of enduring spinal damage.

Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, has pulled out of his appearance in Dublin this weekend because of his role in the failing to address the abuse contained in the report. There are reports of other similar withdrawals.

The report in Pennsylvania is horrifyingly similar to the many reports which form the backdrop to ongoing campaigns for justice by survivors of clerical and institutional abuse in Ireland. Survivors point out that the church’s refusal to fully submit to secular law. The church still retains the seal of confession, and refuses to allow the Pope to fire bishops in any circumstances. No apology will change the fact that the Catholic Church continues to view its own internal laws as better capable of preventing future abuse.

Again, anger is not reserved just for the Church. For many, it is the state’s failures which are the greatest let-down – failures to demand that compensation be paid, to extend the scope of inquiries to new institutions and accusations and, crucially, to remove the role of public service provision from the Church once and for all.

From Catholic subservience to capitalist utopia?

Ireland’s many John Pauls turn 38 this year, as a Pope once more returns to Ireland. Their lives have spanned four decades of dramatic social transformation in Ireland. Their generation almost universally supports radical secularization of the country’s public services – but also faces paying upwards of 50-60 per cent of their income on rent, with little hope of future housing security.

On Saturday, a banner was hung from an occupied building that has been taken over by a broad coalition of housing activists wishing to highlight the city’s housing crisis. The banner is a blunt message to the Pope, reading: ‘10,000 welcomes from 10,000 homeless.’

The thousands of homeless families who live in hotel rooms in Dublin have been evicted to make way for Papal tourists. And a couple of days ago, we learned that the city’s numerous soup runs and homeless outreach activists were to be banned from working the city centre’s streets.

The visit was also marked by a speech from taoiseach Leo Varadkar, the Irish Prime Minister, calling for a new relationship between church and state, and protests over the abuses of the Magdalene laundries and other institutions where unmarried mothers and their children were made to suffer.

If the new generation is a generation diverse in its politics, there are nonetheless many who agree that the chasm left behind by the collapse in the dominance of the church should be filled by something more socially positive than the consumer capitalism which has driven Ireland’s ‘progress’ since the 1990s.