Seán Mon­crieff

The Irish Times Magazine - - CONTENTS - SEÁN MON­CRIEFF

Dur­ing the last pa­pal visit I went to see the pope in Gal­way. I hadn’t in­tended to, but I was a bit drunk. My­self and a friend emerged from a pub in Bal­li­nasloe to wit­ness an eerie lu­mi­nous con­voy snaking through the town. It seemed like an ad­ven­ture. So we stuck out our thumbs.

The man who picked us up was com­ing from Dublin, and although he seemed an­i­mated, he wanted us to keep him awake. He was ex­hausted from sell­ing JP2 posters at the Dublin Mass for 50p each. Much to his as­ton­ish­ment, he had shifted 7,000 of them. He had cel­e­brated by drink­ing a bot­tle of whiskey dur­ing his jour­ney and was far more drunk than we were. Hap­pily, our ter­ri­fied yelps man­aged to keep him alert all the way to Ballybrit.

Once there, we po­si­tioned our­selves at the top of a slope look­ing down at the al­tar/ stage, and like most of the peo­ple around us, we fell asleep. When we woke, the pope was al­ready speak­ing. We had com­pletely missed the warm- up act of Bishop Ea­monn Casey and Fr Michael Cleary: whose ap­pear­ance at the Young Peo­ples’ Mass was more ap­pro­pri­ate than any­one knew at the time.

I can’t re­mem­ber much else about it, other than mar­vel­ling at the amount of peo­ple around me who man­aged to sleep through the whole thing. No doubt there were many there gen­uinely de­lighted to be in the pres­ence of the pon­tiff, but there were oth­ers – like me – who turned up just so they could say they had; to have that story to tell.

You may view this as dis­re­spect or hypocrisy. You may view Catholi­cism as a dis­creet and rigid set of struc­tures to which one gives fealty or loses the right to be called Catholic. But in re­al­ity the Ir­ish church was never like this. Peo­ple at all lev­els bent the rules. Priests had re­la­tion­ships. Cou­ples used con­tra­cep­tion. Peo­ple opted not to take it all too se­ri­ously. The only dif­fer­ence was that, back then, you kept quiet about it.

Over the next few months, you’ll hear a lot about how Ire­land is such a dif­fer­ent place now. But the sec­u­lar­i­sa­tion of this coun­try was due to far more than the sex­ual abuse scan­dals. It was hap­pen­ing any­way.

We were bet­ter off, bet­ter ed­u­cated, more con­fi­dent: we had more room – and most im­por­tantly, the free­dom – to con­sider and fi­nally ex­press our own be­liefs. For some, this meant leav­ing the church be­hind al­to­gether; for oth­ers this meant re­defin­ing the mean­ing of ‘ Ir­ish Catholic’.

And un­like 1979, it is now openly à la carte. To be an Ir­ish Catholic might mean you’re divorced or gay or you only go to Mass for fu­ner­als. It might mean you don’t re­ally be­lieve in God at all; but given that you’ve grown up be­ing brought into churches, you still find them com­fort­ing.

Most im­por­tantly, you don’t feel the need to apol­o­gise for or ex­plain this to any­one; cer­tainly not any mem­ber of the hi­er­ar­chy. They can’t tell you how to live your life. They can’t tell you what God means. Con­ser­va­tive stal­warts such as Rónán Mullen may make much of the fact that more than 75 per cent of peo­ple in Ire­land still iden­tify as Catholic: but that doesn’t mean they all agree with Rónán Mullen. Or that any of them agree with Rónán Mullen.

So when Pope Fran­cis ar­rives this sum­mer, ex­pect traf­fic jams and mon­ster crowds. He’ll eas­ily muster half a mil­lion into the Phoenix Park. Some will be there just to say they were. Some will be there to sell posters. All will be there with their own Ir­ish Catholic re­li­gion: half a mil­lion peo­ple see­ing half a mil­lion dif­fer­ent vi­sions of God.

Priests had re­la­tion­ships. Cou­ples used con­tra­cep­tion. Peo­ple opted not to take it all too se­ri­ously

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