Pope Francis set for hostile reception in Ireland

Pontiff to touch down in radically changed Catholic country amid sexual abuse ‘perfect storm’

Pope Francis greets adoring crowds in Italy
(Image credit: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Francis will visit a country radically different from that experienced by his antecedents when he touches down in Ireland tomorrow for a two-day tour.

In the 39 years since Pope John Paul II visited in 1979, Ireland has gone from one of the most staunchly conservative countries in the Western world dominated by the Catholic Church to a bastion of moderation and social liberalism.

In 2015 it become one of the world’s first country to adopt gay marriage by popular ballot, then in May it voted to legalise abortion by a huge majority, ending one of the West’s most restrictive abortion regimes. It is also led by an openly gay prime minister.

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By contrast, Francis “will find a wounded Church whose once-absolute authority has been laid low by sexual abuse scandals”, reports Reuters.

Weekly Mass attendance has dropped from about 80% 40 years ago to just 35% today, with only half of marriages now held in religious ceremonies in churches.

In 1979, there were more than 6,200 priests throughout the island of Ireland but that figure has fallen to just over 3,900, with many of them aged 70 or over.

While the move towards a more tolerant open society is a reflection of western liberalism over the past three decades, much of the hostility to the Church comes from repeated sexual abuse scandals that have come to light since the late 1990s.

A series of official government inquiries between 2005 and 2014 exposed sexual abuse of minors by priests in various areas of Ireland.

“When the pope arrives in Ireland this weekend, he will find a Catholic Church not just falling to ruin, but in some respects beyond repair,” writes Fintan O’Toole, a columnist for the Irish Times.

“He will be greeted with joy by the faithful, but few, even among them, will expect him to be able to fix an institution that has been shaken to its very foundations,” he says.

His timing could not be worse. A series of sexual abuse crises stretching across multiple countries and continents, from the US and Chile to Australia have created a “perfect storm” according to one Vatican official.

In a sign of the growing open hostility towards the Vatican, The Guardian has reported that thousands of people have applied for tickets to the Pope’s procession with no intention of showing up.

Say Nope to the Pope is a campaign of “silent and peaceful protest” against his visit.

Michael Stewart, one of the organisers, said the idea resonated with people “because it’s an effective form of protest”.

“As Irish citizens, we were all entitled to a ticket to the papal mass if we wished. The taxpayer was funding this visit regardless of their faith, and that was the icing on the cake for many,” he said.

Mary Coll, another Irish Catholic who will not be using her ticket in protest, said: “There are no channels of protest within the church. The church is not interested in feedback. It’s not an organisation where you can fill in a questionnaire on its service. They do things their way and they’re really not interested in what you think about it.”

Half a million tickets have been made available for Sunday Mass, and the charismatic Argentine Pontiff can expect a warm welcome in the Republic of Ireland, but it will “not be the same breathtaking devotion inspired by Pope John Paul II” four decades ago, says the BBC.

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