BLESSINGTON, Ireland – When St. John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979, the Catholic Church wielded such power that homosexuality, divorce, abortion and contraception were barely spoken of, much less condoned. Catholic bishops had advised the authors of Ireland’s constitution and still held sway.
Today, as Pope Francis prepares to visit, the Catholic Church enjoys no such influence. As once-isolated Ireland experienced a tide of secularism and economic boom that opened it to the world, the church largely lost its centrality in Irish life.
Then the church — while still maintaining a stronghold on education and health care in Ireland — lost its moral credibility following revelations of the widespread sexual abuse of children in its churches, the physical torture of youngsters in its schools and the humiliation of women in its workhouses.
If that weren’t enough, an amateur Irish historian researching the deaths of some 800 youngsters discovered a mass grave in a sewage area at a church-run orphanage where children of unwed mothers had been sent.
Francis will be confronted with that haunting past when he visits Ireland this weekend to close out the Vatican’s big Catholic family rally. The event, scheduled three years ago, had been aimed at boosting the church’s visibility and voice, but a fresh wave of scandal across the Atlantic has overshadowed the visit.
“I have no trouble nailing my colors to the mast that I am a practicing Catholic,” said Carmel Dillon, principal of St. Mary’s junior school in Blessington, southwest of Dublin. “However, it is becoming more difficult in circles to state that you are a Catholic.”
Ahead of the visit, a “Say Nope to the Pope” campaign has attracted a strong following, and peaceful protests have been planned. Posters were put up in Dublin featuring an upside-down Holy See flag to “depict the lifelong suffering and anguish that clerical sexual abuse has left.”
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said Francis knows well that “any trip to Ireland was not only going to be about the family.” But he said family life would still be the focus, even if Francis will be meeting with abuse victims during his 36-hour visit.
Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the Irish-born, U.S.-raised official in charge of Catholic families at the Vatican, said he expected that Francis would speak out about abuses suffered by the Irish, including families who lost children during “the troubles,” Northern Ireland’s decadeslong bloody sectarian conflict.
Francis needs to “admit and acknowledge and own the fact that the Roman Catholic Church at the global level, directed by the Vatican, has covered up the crimes of priests,” said Colm O’Gorman, an abuse survivor.
But sex abuse survivors are not the only ones demanding accountability — or at the very least a word of regret — from the pope.
Catherine Corless, who researched the children buried in a mass grave in Tuam, is seeking an apology for the survivors and their families, many of whom are still churchgoing Catholics. “It would mean so much for the church to say ‘What happened was wrong,’ ” she said. “Who puts babies in a sewage area? That’s how little they thought of these poor little things.”