I wasn’t all that pushed about seeing the Pope, even though both of us were in Dublin the same weekend. I’d run into him while in Naples a few years back so had already seen him in the flesh. But the TV was turned on early yesterday to watch live coverage of his arrival in Dublin and I’ve been glued to it ever since. The whole spectacle is captivating.
In the run-up to the Papal visit, the country was divided: those who openly welcomed Pope Francis and those who thought he needn’t bother. Rumour had it that a lot of the no-popers booked tickets for the events at Croke Park and at the the Phoenix Park with no intention of going – a form of silent protest against the Church’s complicity in covering for those involved in the clerical child sex abuse scandals around the world, against the Church’s exclusion of LGBT from the universal family, and in particular the mother and baby atrocities perpetrated in Ireland through the Magdalene Laundries. A rather selfish form of protest I thought – depriving others who might genuinely want to see the pope of the chance to do so. There is a generation in Ireland still utterly committed to the papacy and for many of them, the opportunity to see him was a dream come true. Those empty seats saddened me while the umbrellas emblazoned with the call for Women Priests that grew out of the Ha’penny Bridge heartened me. By all means, make your voice heard – did it have to be at the expense of the dreams of others. That said – perhaps the empty seats were empty because the interest wasn’t there. That’s sad, too.
More still believed that the €30 million or so spent on the visit would have been better spent on addressing homelessness and in-home poverty in Ireland. And to each their own. No one opinion is any more valid than another.
Me? I’m quite taken with him. When he came out of the Pro-Cathedral and chatted to a family outside, he threw back his head and laughed heartily at whatever was said. He doesn’t do things by halves, this chap. He’s driving round in a Skoda (and not a big one either) rather than something fancier. He insists on having the windows down so he can see the people. He greeted clients of the Capuchin homeless shelter individually, making each of them feel special. He took the time to get as close as he could to the punters (creating a security nightmare for those in charge of his safety). He went off script when so moved. All this and more leads me to like him. He’s 80-something. He’s tired. It’s a gruelling 36 hours. And he’ll have a fight on his hands when he goes back home.
In Mayo this morning, he said:
I presented to [Our Lady] all the victims of abuse, of whatever kind, committed by members of the Church in Ireland. None of us can fail to be moved by the stories of young people who suffered abuse, were robbed of their innocence and left scarred by painful memories. This open wound challenges us to be firm and decisive in the pursuit of truth and justice. I beg the lord’s forgiveness for these sins and for the scandal and betrayal felt by so many in God’s family. I ask our blessed mother to intercede for the healing of the survivors and to confirm every member of our Christian family in the resolve never again to permit these situations to occur.
Am sure that for many this fell way short of calling for accountability of those in the Church who helped cover up this abuse. But yesterday, in a private meeting with six survivors, he apparently said people who abused children were caca – a term the translator explained as what you find in a toilet bowl. That he feels their pain, I have no doubt. But he’s a man at the head of a corrupt institution with a strong conservative faction that rails against his every step forward. There’s a limit to what he can do but he is doing something. He’s giving hope to so many people – and you can’t put a price on hope.
He spoke in the Pro-Cathedral to couples who were just married, soon to be married, and married for eons. He talked about the institution, about raising children in the faith. He connected with people at all levels. He remembered those in the North. He mentioned those in prison. I just wish he’d had a word for those who feel excluded from the Church – the divorced, the LGBT community, and others who for whatever reason don’t feel part of the family this past week has been celebrating. Yet his audible emphasis on the word ALL whenever he used it referring to the faithful gives me hope that he is simply crippled by the corporation that is the RCC.
Today, old footage from John Paul II’s visit back in 1979 is playing on TV. The crowds are not the same. Health and Safety, which didn’t exist as a concept back then, has limited the numbers this time to 600 000. But given the times we live in, would many more show up? The streets yesterday weren’t as packed as I’d expected. A returning victorious football or rugby team would have attracted more spectators. Yet for so many, getting a glimpse of this kindly man, hearing what he had to say, touching his hand – this meant the world to them.
Two things resonated with me the most. First was his visit to the homeless shelter. There, he commended the Capuchins for asking no questions – for not judging – for helping the vulnerable without taking away their dignity. If only we could all do that. If only we could suspend our judgmental selves – park them – and simply help, no questions asked., no strings, no caveats.
The second was his call for a revolution of love, for us to rediscover tenderness and I assume, its twins of gentleness and kindliness. How far removed we are as a world from this sort of simplicity. His visit was a grateful reminder of how life could be.