DUBLIN, Ireland – A different Ireland will greet Pope Francis than the one that welcomed Pope St. John Paul II in 1979: Wealthier, more international, and less religious.
However, when Francis arrives in Dublin in one month’s time for the World Meeting of Families, he will still be the biggest thing to hit the country since that last papal visit.
Brenda Drumm, the media representative for the World Meeting of Families, says that the 500,000 people expected at the event will come for a variety reasons, but that’s okay.
“There are people who will go to the Mass because it is a moment of history. You will have people who say it’s not the right reason to go, but I think Pope Francis will be happy to have 500,000 people, whatever the makeup of them, in the park with him on Sunday.”
The World Meeting of Families is a Vatican-sponsored jamboree taking place every three years, begun by John Paul in 1994. It usually features a Festival of Families presided over by the pope, and ends with a giant papal Mass.
Although the papal visit is the featured event – and the target of most media focus – the majority of the meeting takes place before the pope arrives, in the pastoral congress that features a series of talks and discussions on the role of family in the world today.
“It is the starter before the main course…that is what will set the tone and set the discourse for the rest of the three days [Francis] is with us,” said Hannah Evans, the speaker program coordinator.
She told Crux the congress will be reflective of the issues Francis has highlighted during his papacy, including human trafficking, refugees, and protecting the environment.
“I think a lot of these issues are unifying ones. I think regardless of your faith or creed, everybody agrees that human trafficking is an awful thing and should be stopped, and we should do what we can to shine a light on this and to help the people that it affects. The same thing in regards to climate justice,” she said.
A big influence on the programming is the experience of the International Eucharistic Congress which took place in Dublin in 2012 and had a successful workshop program.
“I think [Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin] was overwhelmed by the amount of people that wanted to go to an intellectual debate, discussion, presentation on various aspects of faith about the Eucharist, and I think he has applied the same logic to the World Meeting of Families,” said Gerard Gallagher, who works at the evangelization office for the archdiocese.
Ireland has changed drastically in the last generation. Revelations about clerical sexual abuse and horrible conditions in Church-run care facilities have put public trust in the Church at an all-time low in the country. Currently, nearly half of Irish people under the age of 30 do not identify as Catholic in a country which was once synonymous with the Catholic Church in many parts of the world.
The organizers at the World Meeting of Families know that a week-long event can’t perform miracles, but it can show another face of the Church to the country.
“I think sometimes the legacy of the child sexual abuse scandal is that it has blocked people from having a relationship with the Church, but more importantly with God, with Jesus Christ,” Drumm said.
“I think that is something that is quite sad as a legacy. I think in putting this event together, we were conscious from the beginning that all are welcome,” she told Crux.
Evans said one of her major goals was to bring the energy of the World Youth Days she has attended to her home country.
“I can remember the times I have been at World Youth Day and experienced such a wave of love and joy and celebration, and I have always thought ‘I just wish we could have this in Ireland’… For me that’s the one thing that drives me in my role, trying to be a part of that and to give people a different experience of Church,” she told Crux.
Gallagher said he expects many people to come to the event in thanksgiving for the work Irish missionaries have done in their home countries.
“The Church in Ireland has changed radically over the last number of years. A lot of the people coming to this event from overseas are probably coming to support the Irish Catholic who is struggling to maintain their faith,” he said, hoping that jaded Catholics in Dublin will be inspired by the fervent faith of the visitors.
“The 20,000 coming from overseas will help the 500,000” participants from Ireland, Gallagher told Crux.
The organizers agreed that whatever their relationship with the Church, the Irish people have a positive view of Francis and will give him a chance.
“This is modern Ireland, and I think there is a sense that this pope gets it, that he understands family life. He understands the complexities, the challenges, the grey areas, and that he doesn’t judge. I think that’s the pope people will come out to see in large numbers,” Drumm said.
“The stuff that he speaks about is relevant to society. It doesn’t just speak to Church doctrine, it speaks to people’s hearts. And I think the majority of people in Ireland are ready to open the doors of their heart to Pope Francis and to hear what he has to say,” Evans said.
The World Meeting of Families takes place Aug. 21-26. Francis will be in Ireland Aug. 25-26.