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General view of the opening mass at the World Meeting of Families in Dublin, Ireland Aug. 21, 2018.


When Pope Francis arrives in Dublin on Saturday for the first papal visit to Ireland in almost 40 years, he’ll encounter a country that’s moved so far from its Catholic traditions that many people are openly hostile to his visit.

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Pope Francis will face several protests during his two-day stay and a number of local leaders have shunned invitations to a formal reception with the pontiff. More than 6,000 people have also joined an online movement called “Say Nope to the Pope.” They plan to scoop up tickets to the Pope’s outdoor mass in Dublin on Sunday and then not show up, an act of defiance at what they say is the church’s “systematic protection of abusers.” The protesters hope the empty space at the mass will show the Pope that the “Catholic church no longer has a place in modern Ireland.”

The cold shoulder is a far cry from the last papal visit in 1979, when Pope John Paul II was greeted by 2.7 million people, around three-quarters of the population, and his trip was a national celebration. Back then, Ireland was seen as a Catholic bastion where 90 per cent of the population attended mass regularly and the church’s influence extended into nearly every aspect of daily life. The country has gone through a stunning transformation in recent years as followers pulled away from Catholic teachings and the church’s power waned. In the past 25 years, Irish voters have struck down restrictions on divorce, approved same-sex marriage and, by an overwhelming margin in May, repealed a constitutional ban on almost all abortions. Today, the number of Catholics is falling steadily and the church’s grip on institutions such as primary schools and hospitals is under siege.

“I think the church in Ireland today is a church people choose to be part of if they wish but it’s not the dominant institution that it was at all in 1979,” said Mary McAuliffe, a sociologist at University College Dublin. The Pope “is coming at a time when people are very aware of the traumas suffered by women, by children, by poor people, because of the attitudes and mores of the church and the state. Perhaps it’s a time for us to express all of this as well.”

Much of the current disenchantment with the Pope stems from the child-abuse scandals in Ireland and around the world, including the allegations that surfaced last week in Pennsylvania involving 300 priests abusing more than 1,000 children over decades. There have also been revelations in Ireland about systemic abuse by priests and the mistreatment of thousands of unwed mothers who were sent to work in Magdalene laundries and told to give up their children for adoption. The Pope issued an open letter to Catholics on Monday condemning the abuse and saying that “no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated. “

An altar boy holds a candle during the opening mass of the World Meeting of Families in Dublin.


That has done little to ease the rage of people such as Colm O’Gorman, 52, who was abused for years as a teenager by his local parish priest. “The Pope begs for forgiveness but he doesn’t say for what,” said Mr. O’Gorman, who is the executive director of Amnesty International in Ireland. He said that despite some tougher language, the Pope has yet to indicate that the Vatican takes responsibility for the abuse. “The Pope doesn’t need to beg my forgiveness as a victim of boyhood rape at the hands of a Catholic priest. If the Pope wants to be accountable for what happened to me, I think he does need to address the fact that this priest was ordained as a priest despite the fact that the church knew he was a child abuser … and then, for the next 13 years, he remained in ministry, raping and abusing with impunity.”

To be sure, there remain plenty of Catholic faithful in Ireland; around 500,000 people are expected to attend the Pope’s outdoor mass on Sunday in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. He’s also visiting the Knock Shrine in western Ireland, where a group of villagers is believed to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph and John the Baptist in 1879. The Pope will lead a recitation of the Angelus prayer at the shrine in front of an expected crowd of around 45,000 people.

But the number of adherents in Ireland is falling. Roughly 78 per cent of Irish people identified themselves as Catholic in the latest census in 2016. That was down from 84 per cent in the 2011 census and polls show only around one-third of Catholics attended mass regularly. The number of people who said they had no religion jumped by nearly 200,000 people to 10 per cent of the total population, a rise of 74 per cent from the 2011 census. “Given the historic attachment [to the church], and given the historically high practice of religion, the census figures are very, very striking,” said Diarmaid Ferriter, a professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin.

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Mr. Ferriter said the church is suffering from a host of issues including the child-abuse allegations and its attitude toward women and the LGBTQ community. “I think the combination of them means that the atmosphere is in some ways quite fraught,” he said. “There are going to be protests. They may be relatively small scale but very fact that they are happening is an indication that there’s a very diverse number of constituencies who are disaffected.”

Candles with a picture of Pope Francis on them are seen for sale at a stall during the Papal Congress in Dublin.


He and others have noted that despite Pope Francis’s attempts to reach out to diverse communities, the church hierarchy appears less accommodating. Many point to the World Meeting of Families, a five-day international conference taking place in Dublin in conjunction with the Pope’s visit. The conference is organized every three years by the Catholic Church “to celebrate, pray and reflect upon the central importance of marriage and the family.” But this week’s event has run into controversy after it blocked LGBTQ groups from taking part and declined to invite speakers critical of the church’s attitudes toward women. That prompted several prominent figures to lash out. Ireland’s former president, Mary McAleese, has called the conference a “right-wing rally” designed to “rally people to get them motivated to fight against the tide of same-sex marriage, rights for gays, abortion rights, contraceptive rights.” Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, said she refused an invitation to a reception with the Pope in protest of the “misogyny of the Catholic Church, their obstruction of women’s rights in Ireland, their denial of women’s reproductive health around the world, their teachings on the family, which relegate lone-parent and LGBT families to second class.”

Brendan Leahy, the Bishop of Limerick, said he understands the concerns that are being expressed. He says it’s a reflection of the many “storms” the country has faced regarding the church as well as a deep spiritual turmoil. “Wherever the Pope comes, there’s joy, there’s light, there’s peace, there’s love. Now, of course, it was always going to be expected, I suppose, that we would have a range of issues focusing on the Irish church before the Pope’s visit because of what we’ve been through for the past 10 years,” he said in an interview on Tuesday. “Naturally, the degree and intensity and extent of them is not easy to deal with because you are dealing with several issues in one. But it seems to me that’s indicative of an inner spiritual turmoil that’s going on inside the Irish soul because of what has happened.”

Bishop Leahy called the Pope’s letter on Monday a significant “declaration of intent” and added that the Irish church is putting safeguards in place. And while he acknowledged that the church’s role in Irish society is changing, he cautioned that “not all change is good.”

“It’s inevitable that there would be change, we are in a different time,” he said. “The question now is to discern how to go forward.”

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