Given all the negatives, it was remarkable just how many people turned out to see Pope Francis

Posted By: August 31, 2018

Martin O’Brien. Irish News. Belfast. Friday, August 31, 2018

When you think about it, one of the most remarkable things about the visit of Pope Francis—despite all the negative messages about morgues, interminable walks, umbrella bans, the stringent health and safety restrictions,  plus the resurgence of the clerical abuse scandal internationally and the atrocious weather on Sunday—was the huge number of people who saw him or worshipped with him within such a short time-frame.

For reasons that have been documented to death, we all knew this brief visit to the World Meeting of Families would be no repeat of the delirious reception in six centers Pope St John Paul received over three days in 1979.

Yet, an Ipso/MRBI poll for The Irish Times with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percent, indicated that more than 400,000 people turned out to see Francis in public, making him by far the biggest draw in the island of Ireland since John Paul II.

 There is no world figure who would remotely match those figures.

And RTE has revealed that more than one million tuned in to watch at least part of the Papal Mass on television and that 1.8m watched the “live” coverage on Saturday and Sunday, many no doubt preferring to stay at home not just because of the weather but also due to numerous snags over tickets and coaches, something the organizers of the next WMOF in Rome in 2021 should bear in mind.

The qualities that have made Francis such a respected and revered figure within and far beyond the Catholic world were on display in Dublin and Knock.

His humility and joyous anxiety to greet as many different people as possible, for example, the homeless at Brother Kevin’s Capuchin center, those along the popemobile route in the cauldron of love and faith that was Croke Park, or the school children at Knock, stirred many hearts.

I had the privilege of being one of the 1,200 journalists from 31 countries accredited to cover the visit availing of the excellent facilities provided by the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade but also coping with what appeared to be at times overly strict security.

It was humbling to see the countless thousands of pilgrims who had set out in the middle of the night or at the break of dawn and traveled long journeys from every corner of Ireland to be in Phoenix Park, in a remarkable demonstration of faith.

One such person, approaching seventy, with walking difficulties, who somehow walked miles to Phoenix Park after a four-hour drive, spoke for many when he told me next day “I am sore and tired, and it will take a week to recover, but I am mentally and spiritually good, really happy. It was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.”

When historians assess the legacy of this visit, they will watch out for three things.

First, did Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s gracious, illuminating, measured and statesmanlike speech of welcome to the Pope at Dublin Castle pave the way for a new, creative and mature relationship between Church and State in 21st century Ireland? (Illuminating to me, personally, as I did not know or had forgotten that the Free State did not establish departments of Health and Social Welfare until 1947, leaving the provision of those crucial services to the Church.)

Second, after all the Irish Church has endured recently, and is enduring, did the visit of Pope Francis help halt its decline?

Or to put it another way, in the words of the Pope to the Irish Bishops just before his departure, did the Irish Church, embrace “the opportunity for interior renewal” and find “new ways to imagine her life and mission”?

Third, did Pope Francis himself, on his return to Rome, heeding the pleas to him from victims and survivors such as Marie Collins and Fr Paddy McCafferty, and building on his historic plea for forgiveness at Phoenix Park – to quote his powerful words at Knock Shrine, referring to the “open wound” of clerical sex abuse, take the necessary action and prove himself in concrete terms to be “firm and decisive in the pursuit of truth and justice”?

So, much rests on whether Pope Francis can face down those faceless men of power in the Curia who have thus far resisted proposals from his own Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to investigate, name and shame and remove from ministry bishops and cardinals who cover up crime, thus possibly facilitating further crimes against children and young seminarians.