This week­end is the Church’s last waltz in this coun­try

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - COLUMNIST - Ian O’Do­herty

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

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