THE modern Ireland which greeted Pope Francis is very different from the country that one of his illustrious predecessors, Pope Jon Paul II, took by storm four decades ago.
It’s now socially liberal – contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage have all been legalised – and the previously sacrosanct conservatism of the Catholic church is being challenged by a new orthodoxy.
Yet, while Pope Francis was clearly at ease on every occasion that he met, and blessed, families and pilgrims, this visit was, inevitably, overshadowed by the ramifications of the historic abuse scandal that was covered up for so long because of the Church’s iron grip on the Irish state. His gentle words of rebuke, at a gathering of political leaders at Dublin Castle, was followed by the Pontiff using far stronger ones during an open air mass at the holy shrine of Knock when he begged for God’s forgiveness for the “open wound” of abuse and called for “firm and decisive” action to secure “truth and justice”. “I beg the Lord’s forgiveness for these sins and for the scandal and betrayal felt by so many others in God’s family,” he added.
Though there was no formal apology, or promise of transparency, Pope Francis had clearly been moved by his long meeting with abuse survivors as the Church comes under pressure to reveal details about what it knew about the whole scandal from the sexual abuse inflicted by priests in positions of trust to the notorious laundry institutions run by Catholic religious orders which effectively incarcerated thousands of young women from troubled backgrounds and forced them to work under harsh conditions.
Yet, while the Pope’s presence clearly brought great comfort to many, it will have been a wasted opportunity – and cause many to question their faith – if he does not now go further and accede to the wishes of abuse victims and their families. They have suffered enough.