This weekend is the Church’s last waltz in this country
That it was a foundation pillar of this nation’s past is not in doubt. That it has been the dominant institution since the founding of the State is incontrovertible. That those days are long gone and never coming back is self evident. As the faithful gather this weekend, be it in the RDS, the Phoenix Park or down in Knock, there is an undeniable sense of excitement and anticipation from those who have been looking forward to this event since it was first announced.
For any Catholic, but particularly those Catholics of a more, how shall I say it, refined vintage, the arrival of a Pope, any Pope, is a big deal.
Pope Francis has a better grasp of the importance of good PR than his predecessor, the learned but rather austere Benedict, and this weekend’s visit will show off the more palatable side of the Catholic Church.
That’s quite some achievement for this Pope, particularly when you consider his rather doctrinaire positions and, most unforgivably, his tacit understanding of Islamist crimes across Europe.
After all, it shouldn’t be forgotten that in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, when the continent was in a state of shock that people could be slaughtered because of a cartoon, he stood in solidarity with numerous Islamic clerics in condemning not just the murders, but the cartoons that provoked them.
On the same day as the funerals for most of the victims were taking place, Francis pointed to a colleague and declared “if my good friend insulted my mother, he could expect a punch... It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
The comments certainly came as a surprise to those casual observers who thought the occasional photo of him washing someone’s feet meant that Pope Francis was a touchyfeely liberal.
But it’s a testament to his popularity that those words haven’t followed him like a mill stone around his neck — they certainly should have.
That exchange, three years ago, can also be extrapolated further into the wider context of where the Church now stands in Europe, particularly in relation to the growing tide of Islam.
As we shall see this weekend, the Catholic Church is an ageing organisation, largely broken in this country by a constant, incessant drip-drip of scandal and atrocity.
Its membership is eroding, through a process of natural deaths and people simply turning their backs on the whole organisation. This is hardly a new phenomenon. After all, the then education minister, Ruari Quinn, declared to an American audience in 1996 that Ireland was a now a ‘post-Catholic country’.
So it’s hardly a matter of national astonishment that this weekend’s visit is far more shrouded in controversy, rancour and, even worse, apathy, than the last time a pontiff kissed our turf.
The collapse of the Church’s broad support base had begun before even then, so no observer, regardless of their faith of lack of one, can be surprised to see to see the demographics on display.
In Michel Houellebecq’s 2015 French novel Submission, traditional Christian churches are almost a novelty, a force of habit for an elderly congregation and something which has nothing of relevance to offer the modern world.
Obviously, Houellebecq being Houellebecq, he took an apocalyptic approach to things, but the fall of the Catholic Church in the West can’t just be blamed on the scandals in this country.
The Roman Catholic Church is retreating not just because ordinary people don’t know what they really want, but because the Church doesn’t know what to offer them.
Sclerotic and woefully out of touch, the good work done by the likes of Diarmuid Martin to rehabilitate their image can’t ever atone for the sins of the fathers,
The current drive, spearheaded by Mary McAleese, to transform this ailing organisation into something fit for purpose in the 21st Century seems both wrong-headed and futile.
After all, if you’re a Catholic, then you have to accept that Mother Church is the official vessel of God’s word.
To demand that the word of God be changed after 2,000 years to accommodate the current social mores seems presumptuous to the point of arrogance.
Let’s put it this way, I’m an atheist, I’ve always been an atheist and I suspect I shall die as one — and even I wouldn’t have the stones to suggest that maybe, just maybe, God was a bit out of line with some of his messages and needed to be updated.
This weekend is the Church’s last waltz in this country.
After all, it’s estimated that 2.7 million people went out to see Pope John Paul II when he was here in 1979.
Forty years later and this weekend’s numbers will be counted in the hundreds of thousands rather than millions.
If the country has to wait another four decades, then the figure will be even smaller again.
I remember once going to the ‘hugging nun’ in a venue in Tallaght, where the small number of attendees was marked by the strength of their devotion.
It’s hard not to see a similar future in store for the Church.
They might not like that prospect but it’s the best option they have. This weekend, however, the pilgrims will enjoy themselves. Good luck to them.
It’s a testament to Francis’s popularity that those words haven’t followed him like a mill stone around his neck — they certainly should have
Out of touch: More and more Catholics are turning their backs on the Church