ROME – Now that the dust has begun to settle on Pope Francis’s whirlwind 32-hour visit to Ireland over the weekend, it’s time to step back and draw some tentative conclusions about how the pontiff fared, as well as who else gained and lost from the experience.
A qualified success
At one level, it’s easy to assume that any pope traveling to Ireland ought to have a home field advantage. It’s a country where Catholicism shaped the culture for centuries, and where church and state to this day are deeply intertwined.
Yet the Ireland which greeted Francis politely in 2018 is worlds away from the place that went nuts for John Paul II back in 1979, with well over half the country’s population turning out to shower the Polish pope with adulation.
Ireland now is a secular (or, at least, rapidly secularizing) state, where divorce, contraception, gay marriage and abortion are all legal, the result of popular referendums in which a majority of Irish citizens defied the Church. It’s also a country that’s been deeply scarred by the child sexual abuse scandals in Catholicism, with rage induced by those scandals virtually a defining feature of national life.
Under any circumstances, therefore, Francis would have had his work cut out for him. Add in the immediate run-up to the visit, in which one new abuse scandal after another ripped open old wounds, and the mountain he had to climb steep indeed.
In that context, the general consensus was that Francis mostly exceeded expectations.
His crowds were light but genuinely enthusiastic, and most people were more inclined to blame the cold, rainy weather, plus a climate of fear induced by media warnings of road closures, long walks and general awfulness, for the lower-than-expected turnout.
Overall, the “Francis magic” played in Ireland too, especially his iconic visit on Saturday to a Dublin homeless care facility run by the Capuchin Franciscans. People watched the pontiff project humility and genuine pleasure in greeting society’s outcasts. They also watched him deliver an impromptu rite of repentance on Sunday after meeting abuse victims the night before and found themselves wanting to believe this could still be the pope who makes it all right.
However, one can’t call the trip a complete success, because it was dogged at the end by the letter of a former papal ambassador in the United States who accused Francis of covering up scandals surrounding former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and by the fact that he failed to deliver the concrete action plan on accountability for bishops that many Irish survivors were demanding.
In the end, therefore, the best early judgment is that the trip went better than one might have reasonably thought, but not quite as well as one might have dreamed.
Winners and Losers
Aside from the pope himself, not to mention a somewhat beleaguered Irish Church that badly needed a shot in the arm, there seemed to be two clear winners whose stock rose as a result of the papal visit.
One is Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, who will get much of the credit for hosting a successful World Meeting of Families and papal trip, and who used the occasion to position himself anew as a change agent and reformer on the clerical sexual abuse scandals.
If Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston should find his position as head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in jeopardy, either because of abuse scandals at Boston’s St. John’s Seminary or because of controversy over a letter about McCarrick one of his aides received but which O’Malley says he never saw, the 73-year-old Martin would strike many observers as a replacement sent up by a Hollywood Central Casting office.
(Martin may have dropped a hint that he’s available by telling reporters on the Sunday before the World Meeting opened that O’Malley’s commission doesn’t “have its teeth” into areas where it should, and suggesting the pope needs a stronger team.)
The other clear winner is Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who’s openly gay and who used his welcoming speech for Francis on Saturday to lay out the basis of a “new covenant between church and state for the 21st century.”
Part of that, Varadkar appeared to suggest, is a new spirit of candor, which he exemplified by publicly taking the pope to task over the abuse scandals.
“In place of Christian charity forgiveness and compassion far too often there was judgement, severity, and cruelty. In particular towards women and children and those on the margins,” he said.
“Magdalene Laundries, mother and baby homes, industrial schools, illegal adoptions and clerical child abuse are stains on our state, our society and also the Church. People kept in dark corners behind closed doors, cries for help that went unheard. Those wounds are still open, and there is much to be done to bring about justice and truth and healing for the victims and survivors,” Varadkar said.
“Holy Father, we ask that you use your office and influence to ensure this is done in Ireland and around the world.”
It was a deferential, respectful way of engaging Chruch leadership, but at the same time honest and unafraid. One Irish commentator put public reaction this way: “The papal visit may or may not be remembered as the moment Francis won us over, but it will definitely go down as the moment when Varadkar did.”
In terms of losers, the first might well be the LGBT community – not because of anything it did or failed to do, but the circumstances.
Six months ago, most handicappers would have bet real money that the LGBT community’s treatment by the Catholic Church, and its place in an Irish society still heavily conditioned by Catholicism, could well be the defining issue of the World Meeting of Families in Dublin, or at least a major bit of its subtext.
While there was some ferment around the edges, however, the reality of the run-up to the event – the McCarrick scandal, the Pennsylvania grand jury report, the ongoing revelations from Chile, and growing pressures on various senior Church officials over their roles – made the clerical sexual abuse scandals almost the only lens through which the media, and the wider world, assessed the trip.
The other loser, at least in terms of the attention it drew, was the debate over Francis’s 2016 document on the family, Amoris Laetitia, and its cautious opening to Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
Officially, the entire World Meeting of Families was organized around Amoris Laetitia, and informally the hope in those quarters was that the event would represent a turning point in which positive reaction to the document would gain the upper hand.
Opponents, on the other hand, hoped to show that there’s deep and abiding discomfort with the document, not just among quarters of the clergy but also the grassroots. A conservative event organized just down the street from the World Meeting drew some of the most ardent critics of the document.
Yet because of the focus on the abuse crisis, as well as the general weariness of the wider Catholic world with the entire kerfuffle, the Amoris debate was basically a footnote in Dublin – a loaded term, to be sure, in discussions of the document, since its most controversial provision came in perhaps the most talked-about papal footnote in history, but true nevertheless.
Of course, most Catholics who showed up to see the pope at Dublin’s Croke Park Saturday night for a festival of families, or who went to Phoenix Park Sunday afternoon for the World Meeting’s official close, weren’t thinking in those terms.
They were overjoyed to see the pope and basking in the experience of sharing their faith with similarly enthusiastic Catholics not just from other parts of Ireland, but all over the world. For those people, they’re the real winners, regardless of who else might have benefitted – and they’re probably not inclined to think much about who might have lost either.