A number of months ago, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis would visit Ireland this year. Since then it has been clear that we are in many ways a nation divided by age, ideology and unspeakable hurt. After years of horrifying revelations of abuse and misconduct, Ireland’s constitutional and cultural relationship with the Catholic Church has been shaken to its core. Over the past thirty years, allegations of clerical child abuse in Ireland have been rife. Victims have spoken out about unimaginable horrors they endured at the hands of many within the Catholic Church. Furthermore, the nation has been shocked not only by the local scale of these crimes, but by the extensive cover up that stretched beyond Ireland and to the Vatican itself. As a traditionally Catholic nation we are faced with the reality that the same church that preaches “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” not only allowed society’s most vulnerable to be horrifically abused, but also made concealment of such crimes a priority over aiding those they harmed.
In recent months, major debate has erupted due to group bookings organised by boycotters of the papal visit. While many claim that one group’s right to protest is infringing another’s right to celebrate their own religion, protesters view this year’s papal visit as an opportunity to show the Vatican that the church no longer holds the same influence over a modern Ireland. The animosity is clear between many who have left the faith and those who remain active members of the church. Regardless of one’s personal beliefs though, the message of protesters is undoubtedly grounded in truth. The Catholic Church is not the power it once was in Ireland. In both the marriage equality referendum of 2015 and the recent abortion rights referendum, the Church stood with the minority in the final vote. All things considered, one may be forgiven for wondering how the Catholic Church and indeed its head, the Pope, fit into Ireland in 2018.
Those born in the nineties or noughties have grown up listening to the stories of women in the Magdalene Laundries, of young children being abused in schools, places that should be safe, places that should be committed to intellectual and creative growth. It is no wonder that the number of young people attending mass has plummeted over the past number of years. Unlike many of our parents we have not been raised in a culture of trust where the Roman Catholic Church is concerned. That being said, we must understand that religion is extremely personal to those who practise it. We cannot presume to know anything about an individual’s outlook on issues of equality or politics simply because they are part of a religious community. Everybody has the right to celebrate and be proud of their religious beliefs without pre-judgment by others. Though many of the tickets acquired for the papal visits were indeed in protest, many more were sought by people who truly view the Pope’s visit as a celebration. It would be wrong to assume that the place of The Catholic Church in Irish society lies firmly in the past when for many it is a source of lifelong joy and inspiration. There are those who have found a way to reconcile the views of the Church with their own personal experience of religion, and it is important that we as a society recognise that they too have the right to celebrate that which brings them comfort or even a sense of tradition.
In Ireland no matter our religion or belief, we are anything but indifferent to the Catholic Church. Its influence is everywhere. It has been woven into our constitution, our schools, our national holidays. So historically interwoven is our national identity with Catholicism, that the celebration of Saint Patrick is celebrated all over the world with Irish flags and music. If there is a case for arguing that religious dedication may exist on a spectrum, the people of Ireland are the perfect example. When the Catholic Church abused its victims in the most violating, heart-breaking ways, it betrayed an entire nation. As individuals and as a country we have been violated. This is why we must allow for people to celebrate or protest as they must choose. Anger is a pivotal part of the healing process and when wielded thoughtfully can be a great force for change. People must not be silenced as they express their anger or indeed their faith.
Whether a protester or an active member of the Catholic Church, everyone retains the right to express their opinions and the Papal visit presents us with that chance. Now is when we need to discuss how we as a nation are coping with the sorrow and division the Church’s actions have caused. We must take this opportunity to begin an open discussion between those who stand with the church and those who rail against it. Furthermore, this is also a chance for open dialogue between Rome and those it has let down. As a country we have been hurt and deceived by the institute that presented itself as the moral backbone of society, an institution once trusted and Pope Francis, as head of the Church, must take this opportunity to apologise. Listening to and being respectful of the many different religions, traditions and beliefs in Ireland today is essential if we are to have any healing as a nation. Perhaps what our reaction to the Pope’s arrival has really shown is this; modern Ireland is still in the process of finding its’ feet. Though we are certainly a nation still shadowed by a harrowing and unjust past, we are also a society seeking a kinder, more inclusive future.