Back in 1979, Pope John Paul II arrived in Ireland to an outpouring of love, affection and enormous crowds, including an estimated 1.2 million people for a Mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. Among the faithful that day was Carmel Malone.
Nearly four decades later, Malone’s daughters brought her in a wheelchair to watch Pope Francis pass through downtown Dublin on Saturday. This time, the crowds were far sparser — only one deep in some places — and there were even some boos from victims of clerical sexual abuse who protested along the road.
“I believe,” said Malone, 78, explaining why she came out. “I know the young people of today don’t believe, but I do.”
Francis spent the weekend in a radically different Ireland than the one John Paul II encountered. It is richer, more educated, more secular — and deeply disillusioned after revelations of widespread clerical sexual abuse, the cruelty of church-run workhouses that took children away from their unwed mothers and repeated church cover-ups.
When John Paul II visited, weekly Mass attendance in Ireland was around 80 percent and homosexuality was illegal. Today, Mass attendance hovers around 35 percent. In 2015, Irish people voted to legalize same-sex marriage. Ireland’s Taoiseach, or prime minister, Leo Varadkar, is openly gay. In May, two-thirds of voters went against church doctrine and cast ballots to remove a constitutional amendment banning abortion.
“Most people here in Ireland have changed their views on the church due to the hurt and the neglect that’s been caused,” said Catherine Malone, Carmel’s daughter, who wheeled her mother to the sidewalk to see the pope. “Ireland was such a poor country back in 1979, but so much was expected from us. We were really bullied into donations every week.”
Whereas the last papal visit was a national celebration, some people at Francis’ Sunday Mass in Phoenix Park were a little defensive amid all the criticism of the church as it continues to grapple with what has become a global sexual abuse crisis. Sarah O’Rourke, who teaches religion in a Roman Catholic primary school, went to witness Francis’ message so she could bring it back to her students, the vast majority of whom don’t attend Mass. She brought her family but didn’t tell several acquaintances because she thought they might be critical.
“Unless I was asked and I knew it would get a good reception, I didn’t say anything,” said O’Rourke. “Maybe that’s the wrong approach to take but, you know what I mean, it wasn’t a popular thing to say.”
Many who attended Sunday’s service were delighted to see some of the faithful turn out amid criticism and opposition to the visit.
“It’s been as if the pope’s visit is a bad thing more than a good thing,” said Ailbhe Lawlor, 15. But, she said, “It’s great to see that so many people are happy that he’s here and are respecting him.”
“He’s a good man,” added Lawlor, who wore a Vatican City flag draped over her shoulders. “It’s not his fault.”
The pope spent much of his two days in Ireland apologizing for the church’s behavior. His most abject apology to date came at Sunday’s Mass. Reading from a statement beneath leaden skies, he said, “We ask for forgiveness for the abuses in Ireland, abuses of power and conscience, sexual abuses on the part of qualified members of the church. … We ask forgiveness for some members of the hierarchy who did not take care of these painful situations and kept silent.”
Many survivors of clerical sexual abuse were unmoved. They said the pope needs to move beyond apologies and toward strict accountability, including the firing of bishops.
The pontiff’s message of contrition was marred by a new allegation: Over the weekend, a former Vatican official accused Francis of ignoring sexual misconduct allegations for years against an American cardinal and called on him to resign. In an 11-page letter, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò — a former Vatican ambassador to Washington — said he had told the pope five years ago that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., faced extensive allegations of sexual misconduct.
Viganò said the pope did nothing. McCarrick resigned last month, but he maintains his innocence. The pope dismissed Viganò’s letter, which took the form of a political attack and, according to the National Catholic Reporter, contained factual errors.
“Read the statement carefully and make your own judgment,” the pope told reporters. “I will not say a single word on this.”
As Francis preached in Phoenix Park on Sunday, more than 1,000 people protested across town, demanding the truth and justice for clerical sex abuse survivors and others mistreated by the church. The rally concluded with a rendition of “We Shall Overcome.”
The gospel song associated with the American civil rights movement underscored how many in attendance saw the Catholic Church as an oppressor. Martin Grehan, a local government researcher, had seen news of the allegations against Pope Francis that morning. Based on the church’s track record of inaction, Grehan said he wasn’t surprised.
“We’ve had cardinals and bishops, they knew about abuse for years, they were covering it up,” said Grehan. “This pope has better PR than the two previous popes, I think, in relation to abuse, but I don’t believe a word he comes out with.”
As the pope flew home to Rome Sunday night, his visit to Ireland only seemed to reinforce the collapse of Catholic authority in a country that was once synonymous with the faith.
“It’s too late,” said Diarmaid Ferriter, a leading historian at University College Dublin. “I don’t think you can reverse this decline.”
But Ferriter was not completely pessimistic about the church’s future in Ireland. Perhaps, he said, there were advantages to having a smaller, more committed flock.
NPR producer Samuel Alwyine-Mosely contributed to this report.