In 1979, in the first days of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II landed at the Dublin airport and kissed the ground as he disembarked an Aer Lingus Boeing 747 the name of St. Patrick.
Ireland was then a bastion of Roman Catholicism, in which the church’s moral authority was unquestionable, divorce was forbidden and homosexuality is illegal.
During three days, more than 2.5 million people came to see the Polish pontiff. More than 1 million of them full of Phoenix Park in Dublin for an outdoor mass, and hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to welcome him. In a liturgy in Killineer, near Drogheda, the pope prayed for an end to the Problems: “In my knees, I beg you to turn away from the path of violence and return to the paths of peace.”
Ireland has had to wait nearly four decades for another papal visit, and in that time much has changed. When Pope Francis arrives in 2018 for a trip announced by the Irish prime minister, on Monday, he is going to find a republic where gay marriage is legal, the Problems are greater and the Catholic church has been damaged, perhaps irreparably, by a flood of sexual abuse and exploitation scandals.
You can even do what no pope has done before: to cross the border in the North of Ireland. “I think there is no prospect whatsoever of him coming to Ireland and not come to the North,” said Martin McGuinness, the region’s deputy prime minister, who at the time of the last papal visit, was a senior member of the IRA. I asked him why he was so sure, McGuinness replied: “Because I’m around a long time and I know how things work.”
Later, a spokesman for Northern Ireland, the first minister, Arlene Foster, said: “the pope to visit the North of Ireland, in his quality of head of state, then, the prime minister was going to meet him.”
If they do not cross the border, the pontiff will find a world radically changed, the more peaceful society that existed in 1979, when it was considered too dangerous for John Paul II to travel there. During the year of your visit, the ANGER ratcheted up its violent campaign, which culminated in the murder of Lord Mountbatten in County Sligo, and the deaths of 18 paratroopers British on the same day in the month of August. In 1988, the then leader of the Democratic Unionist party, Ian Paisley denounced John Paul II as the antichrist.
South of the border, too, things have changed. Francisco of the policy of acceptance of the visit, the taoiseach Enda Kenny, launched a strong attack in the world of Catholic leadership in 2011, accusing the Vatican of trying to play with the seriousness of a report of widespread clerical sex abuse in the diocese of Cloyne, and saying that “the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism … dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day”.
Enda Kenny and his wife Fionnuala with Pope Francis on the 28th of November. Photo: Alessandra Tarantino/AP
Kenny audience with Francis in the Vatican on Monday, after the papal visit was announced, was seen as a bridge-building exercise.
The Irish Catholic hierarchy will see the arrival of the popular Argentinian pontiff, as a means of reasserting the authority of the church. But many Irish believe that the church has a long way to go before it can regain its credibility. Some of the victims of clerical sex abuse warned the pope’s visit would be used by conservative religious forces to prevent the secularization of Ireland.
Sarah Clancy, who remembers seeing pope John Paul II at an outdoor mass in Galway as a child of seven years, said she was mesmerized by the man who speaks to hundreds of thousands of people in an accent that was unknown to her. But she rebelled against the church and blame his struggle with the bisexuality of 20 years of age in “the culture of shame that authoritarian Catholicism promoted”.
The church in Ireland hope that the memory of Francisco of the visit will be less bitter. “Pope Francis has been an important voice for the young, the poor and the disadvantaged,” Kenny twitter. “I’m glad you are going to visit Ireland in the year 2018.”