Miriam Lord: Good show, but papal pulling power wanes

Hugely anticipated visit of Pope Francis to Ireland did not attract the expected numbers

How was it for you?

Glass half full or glass half empty?

Or just someone else’s cup of Catholic cheer?

Once upon a time, more than a million Irish pilgrims descended on the Phoenix Park to serenade their pope. "He's got the whole world, in his hands," they sang in joyous, spontaneous outbursts.


He doesn’t now.

Different times. Different pontiff.

Back then, nearly 40 years ago, no inconvenience was too much to keep the masses away from Mass with the Holy Father. This weekend, Ireland proved that a papal presence doesn’t exert the same pull here anymore.

The much planned and hugely anticipated trip was 32 hours for the devout, the undecided and the indifferent.

But for all that, the pope knows how to put on a good show.

What they got from the pope was sincere, contrite words. Welcome – once more – but not what the world, and Ireland, really needs again

While a 3,000-strong choir and full orchestra were making beautiful music in the park, thousands of people gathered in the quiet of Dublin city centre to “Stand4Truth” to protest against the church’s handling of clerical abuse and to stand in solidarity with the victims.

They had good music too.

And while they may not have had the President or the Taoiseach at their more modest gathering in the Garden of Remembrance, both men – Leo Varadkar in a memorable speech in the presence of the pope and Micheal D Higgins in a private exchange at Áras an Uachtaráin – made clear on Saturday to Pope Francis that they want concrete action from Rome to deal for once and for all with its odious legacy of criminal behaviour.

What they got from the pope was sincere, contrite words. Welcome – once more – but not what the world, and Ireland, really needs again.

The right tone

The Taoiseach’s televised address in Dublin Castle was near pitch-perfect. He delivered it to an audience of political, religious and community leaders, members of the diplomatic corps and international guests, striking just the right tone on a delicate occasion.

It was measured and respectful, recognising the good work done over the years by the Catholic Church while firmly and unequivocally urging the pope to use his office and influence to bring about justice, truth and healing for the victims and survivors of clerical abuse.

Varadkar wrote the speech himself, working on it up to Saturday morning.

Appearances shouldn't be so important, but they are sometimes. The image of the octogenarian pontiff sitting to one side, listening to a youthful Taoiseach setting him straight on how things are now in a country which once pledged almost total allegiance the Vatican, was striking.

Pope Francis must have had much to think about on Saturday night when he attended the Festival of Families event in Croke Park, where the joy and optimism radiating from the crowd rejoicing in its faith was infectious.

The bounce from that concert, along with the pope’s touching visit to Brother Kevin at the Capuchin Day Centre earlier, might have continued into Sunday had it not been for the atrocious weather.

What greeted Pope Francis in Dublin on Sunday was a huge turnout of committed followers who were delighted to see him

The early arrivals were far lower than anticipated and the event never really reached the heights set when John Paul II came. But then, he arrived here with good things to say to a gratefully receptive nation.

This time, Pope Francis arrived to a more sceptical populace. And he was forced to recite an historic Phoenix Park confiteor from the altar, seeking forgiveness for the vile sins his church visited upon Irish mothers, their children, and young men and women.

Unexpected words

In his unexpected litany of prayers he listed the abuses all too familiar now and asked for forgiveness. His unexpected words drew applause from the congregation. But he was playing to a home crowd.

Recognition and contrition is not the same as action.

Yet for those who made the difficult trip – the weather was awful and the faithful had to walk long distances to reach the Mass site – it was a journey well worth making. Others, in a country where recent referendums show that choice now trumps church, weighed up their options and decided not to travel.

Bad news, perhaps, for those hoping to recapture the magic of 1979. But realistically, that was never going to happen.

Instead, what greeted Pope Francis in Dublin on Sunday was a huge turnout of committed followers who were delighted to see him and will treasure the time they enjoyed in his inspirational company.

By the time Pope Francis was on the road to the airport for his return flight to Rome, the size of the crowd and how reduced it was from last week’s predictions of more than half a million, was becoming the story.

Not for the happy pilgrims who pillaged the flowers from the foot of the altar and bore them home as mementoes. Or the people who watched at home and took comfort and solace from the Mass.

“Today we gather around the same cross in the hope of a spring for the Irish church,” said the archbishop of Dublin.

Autumn begins this week.

Glass half empty, glass half full.