Thursday, August 23, 2018

Welcoming Pope Francis

Well, Pope-mania is fully in swing in Ireland! I never expected that the Papal visit would be such a big deal, in 2018. I'm quite surprised and delighted at the revelation.

I went to see John Paul II come to Ireland in 1979. Or at least, I'm told I did. I don't remember it myself, as I was only two years old. I'm told I was a little ultramontanist even at that age, and very excited about seeing him. (Incidentally, I'm going to avoid using the term "Pontiff" or "His Holiness" in this blog post. )  I had a Lego "Popemobile" (I don't think it was actually a Popemobile, just a white vehicle of some kind) which I waved. I can very vaguely remember that-- I think.

John Paul II's visit has passed into legend in Ireland. There are books and documentaries about it. The Irish economist David McWilliams use the term The Pope's Children as the title of a book about the generation who were born at this time.

A book of newspaper columns by the Irish leftist intellectual Anthony Cronin, entitled An Irish Eye, includes two contemporary columns on the visit, remarking upon all the hoop-la-- in a disparaging way, of course.

It's commonly asserted that the visit was a display of Catholic triumphalism, that the wave of secularisation which hit Ireland from the nineties onwards would have seemed unimaginable in the year that a million people attended the Papal Mass in the Phoenix Park (an enormous cross now stands to mark the spot). I'm very dubious that Irish Catholics were really this complacent. Indeed, if you read St. John Paul II's homilies and speeches from the visit, it's plain that the Pope himself was in no illusions about the dangers facing Irish Catholicism.

In any case, the fact that so much has been made of the 1979 visit as a barometer of Ireland's then-fervent Catholicism made me fearful of the 2018 visit, given how rapidly Ireland has secularised since then.

The lack of interest in the Eucharistic Congress held in Dublin in 2012 only deepened this fear in me. It was a powerful contrast with the Eucharistic Congress of 1932, which is always mentioned in history books and documentaries as a triumph for the new Irish state, a moment when a near-universal Catholicism united Civil War divisions. G.K. Chesterton wrote a whole book about it-- although it was a short book, and a rather dull one at that.

And there was one other factor at play, when it came to my low expectations for the Papal visit in 2018-- one that has to do with what Jeeves (the P.G. Wodehouse character) would describe as: "the psychology of the individual".

I've always expected things that happen during my lifetime to be less impressive than things which happened before I came on the scene. I have a deep-seated conviction that everything really impressive happened before I was born. It's deeply irrational, but there it is. An example of this is when I asked someone a little older than me how he would compare the hype around the original Star Wars trilogy with the hype around the Lord of the Rings films, which were being released at the time. He surprised me by saying that he thought the hype for Lord of the Rings was bigger. 

I expected the Papal visit to receive about as much fuss as a big concert or sporting fixture. However, it's been on a much bigger scale. I don't know what to compare it to; it's not in the same league as Ireland's participation in two World Cups and one European Championship during the Jack Charlton era, but it's way bigger than, say the recent performance by the Rolling Stones.

Newspapers (and private companies) are producing commemorative coins to mark the occasion. Carroll's Irish gift shops are selling banners based on the Vatican flag and colours. Dunnes Stores have been selling t-shirts to celebrate the visit-- a fact which pleased me so much, I featured them on the banner image of this blog. (I change the banner every now and again, so it will doubtless be something else if you are reading this some time after the visit.)

Even the official organs of the city (and, I presume, the country) can't help mentioning it. A large screen which relays traffic announcements, on Dorset Street, had the words: "POPE VISIT" on it, the last time I looked. It seemed strange to see the word "Pope" there.

In a darker vein, the Irish media have been pumping out even more anti-Catholic vitriol than usual, for some weeks now. The "news management" element to this has been obvious, even when unstated, but for the last week or so it has been impossible for them not to draw an explicit connection. (Of course, the awful news coming out about the child abuse enquiry in Philadelphia played into their hands nicely.)

To be fair, the same Irish media have been quite extensive in their coverage of the visit, even if most of the coverage has been negative, or subtly negative. (One exception to this was a short Nationwide documentary about Fr. John Sullivan SJ.) I suspected they were going to do their best to ignore it, but that hasn't happened.

I'm not going to the Mass in the Phoenix Park, or to any of the events of the World Meeting of Families. This isn't out of some kind of protest, or even from a lack of interest, but simply because I don't like crowds. Or, to be more precise, I don't like being caught up in crowds.

The visit itself isn't until the weekend, but the event began a couple of days ago, and I've seen quite a few stewards in their green jackets around the city-- on buses, and so forth. Yesterday, I saw a group of people in gaudy saffron robes streaming out of the Sacred Heart Church in Donnybrook. (There has been some controversy about vestments made for the event and they do indeed look incredibly tacky.)

I don't really want to get into all the debates, within Catholic circles, about the event itself. I am sure it will be a mixture of good and bad. The presence of pro-homosexuality Jesuit Fr. James Martin should not be allowed to overshadow the whole programme. A friend of mine tweeted this today, which pretty much confirms what I expected (the RDS is the Royal Dublin Society, where many of the events are taking place): "There's a bit of everything. It reflects the average parish from any part of the world. If you really want to see what diversity looks like go to the RDS and ignore the media."

Why do I enjoy all the hype? Well, partly because it shows Catholicism is still important to Ireland. But mostly for the same reasons I love the World Cup, as I explained in this blog post. It's a distinctive moment in social history, a landmark, an atmosphere. I'm very grateful it's as big a deal as it is.


  1. It'll be interesting to watch Fr Martins contribution.