sabato 11 agosto 2018

FT Magazine Ireland
(Arthur Beesley) Sharon Tighe-Mooney was still in school when the Pope came to Ireland in 1979. Early on a Sunday morning in September, she gathered with pals in rural County Roscommon for a bus trip to see John Paul II in the western city of Galway. “Every teenager in the village was there,” she says. There was a party atmosphere as they merrily went off for a big day out with no parents to bother them.
“A Pope was never seen outside the Vatican. It was a huge thing; and he was very charismatic.”
Tighe-Mooney, now in her fifties, laughs as she recalls an unexpected detour. The bus had hardly left home before it stopped in the nearest town, only minutes away, so the gang could go to mass in a local church. Only then did they go on to John Paul II’s special mass for young people in Galway, travelling 80 miles on bad country roads to the city racecourse. There they joined a happy throng of 300,000 to see the Polish pontiff, who had been elected just the year before.
“The bus was parked miles from the site, so we had a very, very long walk to where we were going. We had picnic food. I remember the singing and the buzz and the atmosphere. It was a real high,” she says. When John Paul II declared “young people of Ireland, I love you”, the crowd burst into rapturous applause and prolonged cheering. “It went on for ages. It took a few minutes for people to get it, to realise what he had just said.”
Galway was one of the highlights of the visit, an epic three-day journey in which an estimated 2.7 million people greeted John Paul II. It is thought that almost half the island’s population turned out to see him at some point. In Dublin, streets draped with yellow Vatican flags were left eerily deserted when more than a million people gathered in the city’s biggest park to see the Pope say mass, many walking for hours to be there. To this day, a huge white cross marks the spot where he preached.
The cross in Dublin's Phoenix Park, marking where John Paul II held mass in 1979 © Ellius Grace
Pope John Paul II visits Ireland, September 1979 © Getty
Later this month, almost 40 years later, the current Pope Francis will follow John Paul II to Ireland. He will attend the World Meeting of Families, a Catholic congress held every three years in a different global city to celebrate marriage and family as the cornerstone of life, society and the church. The government of Leo Varadkar, prime minister, is treating it as a state visit, with diplomatic frills, ceremonial trappings and, inevitably, high security. All tickets were snapped up online within days for a series of public events, the biggest being a mass for 500,000 people that the Pope will say in the same Dublin park as his predecessor.
For some of the faithful, the visit of a man regarded as a liberalising leader presents an opportunity for frank discussion about church teaching. “Francis has called for open debate within the church,” says Gerry O’Hanlon, a Jesuit theologian in Dublin. “He has called for people to be fearless in saying what they want.” But the Pope himself will encounter a profoundly different country when it comes to his church, an institution that is struggling to find its place in 21st-century Ireland.
In Ireland, fealty to the church has roots that go back centuries. Schoolchildren learn of heroic underground priests in the 17th and 18th centuries, when Catholicism was suppressed under British colonial rule. When the last of these penal laws was finally repealed in 1829, an increasingly assertive clergy aligned with an ascendant Irish nationalism. After independence in the 1920s, the founding fathers of the new state granted high status to the church. “If Rome was giving rosettes for the most Catholic country in the 20th century or the first half of it, Ireland would have got the red rosette [for first place],” says Mark Patrick Hederman, former abbot of Glenstal Abbey monastery in County Limerick. “Ireland was an island of purity surrounded by a sea of vice, this was the idea.”
Catholicism remains a redoubtable force in Ireland and is still capable of bringing together big swaths of the community, often in vivid demonstrations of deep religious faith. Each July, thousands of pilgrims, many of them barefoot, walk up the rugged slopes of Croagh Patrick mountain in County Mayo i­n honour of St Patrick, the country’s patron saint. But the church itself has been in retreat for years. An institution that once had a tentacular reach into practically every aspect of society is greatly diminished.
Scandals of child sexual molestation by priests, clerical wrongdoings and the institutional abuse of unmarried mothers have all eaten away at the church’s credibility and authority over recent decades. Religious certainties that lingered longer in Ireland than in other western societies have crumbled, as has the Catholic church’s capacity to sway political debate. A rigid, entrenched monopoly on sexual morality is long gone. Catriona Crowe, a curator and broadcaster who was formerly head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland, characterises the change in Irish society as “people making choices based on their own conscience rather than what the church tells them to do, which is essentially a Protestant idea — that people communicate straight with God and do away with the intermediaries”. It is a profound shift, long in the making.
At the same time, the slow liberalisation of a society, whose adoption of birth control and divorce was fiercely resisted by clerics, has picked up markedly. Ireland legalised gay marriage in 2015, becoming the first country in the world to do so by referendum, in an abrupt repudiation of church teaching against homosexuality. And Francis’s visit comes just three months after another landmark referendum overturned a ban on the termination of pregnancy, which had been inserted in the constitution after a referendum in 1983.
In May 2018, a 66 per cent majority voted to repeal the eighth amendment of Ireland’s constitution and legalise abortion, again spurning holy writ from the church. The proportion almost exactly mirrored the majority that had voted to introduce the constitutional ban in 1983. An exit poll for RTE, the national broadcaster, found that just 12 per cent of respondents considered religion the most important factor in the recent vote. In separate research for Ipsos/MRBI, only 1 per cent of respondents said they voted on the basis of what they heard at mass.
A few days after the referendum, I meet Michael Harding, a bestselling memoirist, playwright and columnist, in the County Leitrim town of Carrick-on-Shannon. An expansive storyteller, Harding, 65, was a priest for four years as a young man but left because he felt out of step with Rome’s rejection of the liberalising theology that had emerged in the 1960s. He campaigned locally to scrap the abortion ban, finding a “deep consistent feeling” among people of all ages that the vote was a moment of emancipation for women.
Few in the population or the clergy would dispute that the slide was sharpened by the relentless cascade of scandal that has rocked the church for decades. In Galway, in 1979, the Pope was introduced to the crowd by Bishop Eamonn Casey and Father Michael Cleary, two of Ireland’s best-known clerics, who were often on TV and radio. More than a decade later, Casey was revealed to have secretly fathered a boy with an American woman. After Cleary’s death in 1993, it was revealed that he fathered two children with his housekeeper.
For many people, these were but the first glimpses into a hidden world of hypocrisy, pain and, in many cases, cruelty and violence. What followed was a grim torrent of disclosures about the sexual abuse of children by clerics, wrecking young lives as church leaders engaged in devious cover-ups to protect the institution over the weakest members of their flock. There have been four statutory reports into clerical child sexual abuse, each a litany of horror and heartbreak.
The most recent was in 2011, and still the complaints continue. The Garda Síochána, Ireland’s police, has received 8,967 “notifications” of clerical abuse within the country and overseas since its sexual-crime management unit was set up in 2010, 77 of them since the start of this year. “These are notifications, and there is overlap and duplication where notifications are received on the same incident from different sources,” said a spokesman.
Pews in the Church of St Nicholas of Myra, Dublin © Ellius Grace
Between 2009 and 2017, the National Board for the Safeguarding of Children, a church body, was notified of 1,751 allegations against religious figures relating to sexual, physical and emotional abuse in the period from the 1940s to 2000. This has eroded trust, says Catriona Crowe. “There were decades where nobody was believed when they told these stories. That began the process of rot, not helped at all by the attempt to cover it up by the church itself and its inability to move swiftly and flexibly to deal with victims compassionately and financially.”
These are vexed questions that Pope Francis cannot avoid. Already, he is facing a clamour to meet abuse survivors and admit the Vatican’s role in the cover-up. In 2011, Varadkar’s predecessor as prime minister, Enda Kenny, denounced church leaders in Rome, something that would have been unimaginable in the past. “The rape and torture of children were downplayed or managed to uphold the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation,” Kenny told parliament. By that point, he said, Ireland was “perhaps unshockable” when it came to the abuse of children.
As Crowe says, “Even long-term Catholics who would have stood by the church regardless finally had to say we cannot tolerate this.”
The proportion of Catholics in Ireland’s population peaked at 94.9 per cent in 1961, after which a slow decline set in. By 2016, Catholics accounted for 78.3 per cent, down sharply in five years from 84.2 per cent as more people declared themselves to be of no religion. The 2016 census also recorded a drop of 132,220 in the number of Catholics, the first fall in absolute numbers for more than a half-century.
There are still more than 3.7 million Catholics in Ireland (out of a population of 4.7 million) but clerics at the coalface say large numbers of these people are but “nominal” members of the religion.
“The recent census, to me, asked the wrong question,” says Father Joe McDonald, who describes himself as “an ordinary, simple parish priest” in Ballyfermot, a working-class suburb of Dublin. “They should have asked: ‘How often do you attend church? How often do you go to mass?’ Then you would get an indication of practising Catholics, and even the mass-going Catholic won’t buy into all the teaching . . . There’s no way we have 75 per cent or 80 per cent of [people] practising. That’s nonsense, a completely misleading figure.”
McDonald is a big man, his oratorical voice almost fully audible from behind the closed door of his office as I waited to meet him recently. He was preparing for two weekend weddings and was still in his white vestments after saying funeral mass for a local resident in her eighties, one of 100-120 funerals that he conducts each year. Many of the oldest parishioners have died, people who gave their often scarce cash to “buy-a-brick” campaigns for a new church building in the 1970s. In younger generations, many are distanced or far removed from the faith. “It’s battlefield stuff being a priest these days in a frontline parish like [this one],” he says. “It’s not a very good term but the Catholic ‘brand’, if you like, is in trouble. There’s absolutely no doubt it’s in trouble and in serious trouble.”
Father Joe McDonald, a parish priest in Ballyfermot, Dublin © Ellius Grace
Last year McDonald wrote a book that he says gave “heartburn” to some bishops, not least because of its highly provocative title, Why the Irish Church Deserves to Die. A slim volume, it is a cri de coeur for the renewal of an institution damaged by a “dysfunctional” leadership that he describes as “tired, predictable, cosy and bland”.
The abortion referendum raises “huge questions” for the church, says McDonald. “I think it will mean a mass exodus. I think we’ll lose a lot of people. It’s an accumulation . . . Rust never sleeps. But I think we’re at a stage now where the work of the rust is really finished and the girders are cracking, the break is happening now and the crash is happening now.”
If you want to discuss a religious matter, the last person you might consult is an actuary. But in June, I met Conor O’Donovan in a swanky Dublin hotel. A senior consultant with insurance broker Willis Towers Watson, O’Donovan knows plenty about the state of Irish Catholicism. In 2015 he was commissioned by church leaders in the city to examine the outlook for the numbers of clergy and religious practice. “They wanted, for want of a better phrase, to predict supply and demand,” he says. The findings were striking.
O’Donovan projects a huge drop in the already declining number of people attending mass in Dublin. While church data shows there was a 20 per cent decline in numbers attending mass between 2008 and 2014, forecasts suggest this will fall another 33 per cent by 2030.
The projected drop in figures for the clergy is even more severe, with the number of priests working full time in the city falling 61 per cent from 369 in 2015 to 144 in 2030. “Over a 15-year period, that’s a very material decline,” says O’Donovan. But there is more. Currently, some 57 per cent of priests are aged above 60, a proportion that would rise to 75 per cent by 2030. “I was just looking at 2030. But if you look 10 years after that you’ve much less priests again,” he says. “It’s very stark.”
A grotto at St Patrick’s Church, Trim, County Meath © Ellius Grace
Diarmuid Martin, archbishop of Dublin, has acknowledged Catholicism “will inevitably” become more of a minority culture in Ireland. “The challenge is to ensure that it is not an irrelevant minority culture,” he has said, raising a bleak spectre for a church that was long at the very epicentre of Irish life.
The notion of an “irrelevant minority” is blunt but not out of step with other church thinkers. “That’s a good phrase,” says Father O’Hanlon, the Jesuit theologian. “You could envisage a much smaller church — very zealous, very committed people — but really not talking to the culture, not in touch with what’s going on.”
Mark Patrick Hederman says an unreformed church risks becoming like the ultra-conservative Amish community in the US, a people that refused centuries ago to embrace the modern world. “Nobody is going to pay any attention to it. Nobody is paying any attention to it anyway, but it was completely dominant.” As birds tweet around us on a fine morning near the County Tipperary town of Roscrea, he says he still finds it hard to believe this happened. “It’s like an iceberg that melted. It was in total control during the 1950s.”
Kiltale Church, Dunsany, County Meath © Ellius Grace
As for that first splendid papal visit, Hederman suggests that, rather than some kind of a high-water mark for Catholicism, it can now be seen more as an act of self-preservation by church leaders. “The hierarchy knew this was in decline, and so John Paul II was brought in as a kind of last-ditch stand to stop the dyke from bursting. So it wasn’t as if it was a triumphalist display of Catholic Ireland at its zenith. It was that they knew.”
Can Pope Francis make a difference now to the situation of the Irish church? McDonald says the definition of family will be crucial for the congress. “Please tell me I am not going to a world meeting of families to hear elderly male celibates dressed in lovely red talking about family,” he says. “Where’s the mother, the single mother, the two men around the corner rearing two children, the granny who’s bringing up her children’s children because she’s buried half of her own?”
Gay campaigners are pressing Francis to reject the church’s description of homosexual “inclinations” as “objectively disordered”, saying this breeds intolerance and attempts to justify discrimination. Another source of rancour is the exclusion of women from the priesthood and decision-making. Mary McAleese, a church-going former Irish president, has described the church as an “empire of misogyny”. McAleese, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has dismissed the congress as “a political rally” and a forum “for the reinforcement of orthodoxy”.
One person who will not be there this time is Sharon Tighe-Mooney, who has recently written a book on women in the church, and laments the fact that women had speaking rights but no vote at a church synod on the family a few years back. “I don’t feel like supporting it,” she says.
Many thousands will turn out, however. And, although the numbers will be smaller than for John Paul II, it is difficult to imagine any other public figure drawing up to half a million people in a city park. “I think it will be a beautiful moment,” says McDonald. “My fear [is] that it will be a beautiful moment that will be short-lived and we’ll be back to the mess that is the Irish church.”
Arthur Beesley is the FT’s Ireland correspondent