Fading faith: Can the pope connect with a changed Ireland?


In the past four decades Ireland has become a different country, but you wouldn’t know it in Knock.

In the small west of Ireland town that is home to the huge Marian shrine complex, it was hard to find a space on the tightly packed pews at 11am mass last week.

The rows of the faithful – some women’s heads draped with lace – offered responses to the priest in confident voices.

Outside the chapel, built on the spot where 15 people believed they witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1879, pilgrims filled bottles with holy water at a line of fonts or queued to complete mass cards for loved ones.

Priests were available to hear confession.

An office across Main Street offered a marriage introduction service – “all applications treated in strictest confidence”.

The facade of the Fairfield restaurant was being repainted in Vatican yellow, and finishing touches being put to a gleaming new piazza opposite the shrine.

Souvenir shops were already stocked with “Pope Francis 2018” fridge magnets, alongside rosaries and figurines.

“The excitement is palpable,” said Father Richard Gibbons, Knock’s parish priest for the past six years.

Francis flys into Ireland

This weekend the papal plane will touch down at Knock’s international airport, privately built and operated to cater for 1.5 million-plus annual visitors to the shrine, many seeking a miraculous cure for physical or psychological ailments.

The pope will spend an hour at the shrine – a few moments of private prayer, an address to those gathered outside the vast basilica and a whizz round in his popemobile – during a 36-hour visit to Ireland, most of which will be spent at the World Meeting of Families in Dublin.

Remarkably, his trip will be only the second papal visit to a country noted for its Catholic traditions.

The first was 39 years ago, when Pope John Paul II also visited Knock on the centenary of the apparition.

Some 450,000 people turned out to see him there; in total, an estimated 2.5 million – more than half the combined population of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland at the time – attended events or cheered on the streets during the three-day trip.

This time 45,000 tickets have been allocated in Knock.

“With the level of interest we’ve had, we could have quadrupled that,” said Gibbons. Half a million tickets have been distributed for the papal mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

A vastly different Ireland

Ireland has changed profoundly between the two papal visits – “1979 and today are a world away in every regard,” said Gibbons.

“Francis is well aware of that, and he may address those changes while he’s here.

“He’s not one for shirking difficult issues.”

There is no shortage of such issues for the pope to choose from. The

  • legacy of decades of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up;
  • cruelty meted out to vulnerable women in the notorious Magdalene laundries;
  • forced adoption by Catholic agencies of babies born to unmarried women;
  • robust rejection this spring by the Irish population of church teaching on abortion;
  • slump in people attending mass, down to 2% of the population in some districts of Dublin;
  • crisis in vocations (the recruitment of priests) which means that within a few years even if people are inclined to go to mass, there will be no priest to lead it.

This autumn another symbolic pillar of Catholicism is expected to fall when the Irish people vote on removing the offence of blasphemy from the country’s constitution.

The referendum will be held just a few months after Francis declared that “blasphemy, the sin against the Holy Spirit, is the only unpardonable sin” in an address from St Peter’s Square. Continue reading

  • Harriet Sherwood is a journalist with the Guardian and the Observer, writing about religion and social issues.
  • Image: The Guardian

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