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OPINION: 'An Over-Hyped Visit By Pope Francis Has No Place In Modern Ireland'

By James Fenton

August 5, 2017 at 4:53pm


On Saturday September 29 1979, 1.25 million people crammed into the Phoenix Park in Dublin to pay tribute to a very welcome visitor.

Back then, Pope John Paul II was to Ireland what Justin Bieber is to us today. The three-day visit from JP2 brought with it mass (geddit?) hysteria and rightly so. 

Okay, so the late pontiff wasn't snapped sulkily scoffing burritos in a Maynooth Mexican or shooting hoops in a Dublin park but he did receive similar levels of love and attention as international megastars do when they visit our shores these days. Just replace the camera-phones and Instagram posts with fingers and pointing. 

The thing is, he was an international megastar.

In the late 70s, Irish society was still very much in the grip of the power held by the Catholic Church. So why wouldn't a visit by its figurehead attract huge excitement and clamour from all four corners of a nation which has a predominantly Catholic history? 

I'm sure many of your mams and dads, or grandparents, were there and have told you all the stories. Perhaps you are old enough to have attended the event as a child? If JP happened to get within touching distance you can be sure someone would have risked life and limb to hand your infant self over for a kiss on the head and a bit of an aul' blessing.

Unfortunately, as someone who loves nothing better than jumping on a bandwagon, I had yet to grace the world with my presence. Better luck next year, says you.

Alas, I don't reckon I'll be in any mad rush to catch the visit by the current Pope to Ireland next year. I've nothing against Pope Francis personally but I have to ask myself does modern day Ireland really need a visit from a Pope?

The GAA may be prepared to face the wrath of football supporters by rearranging the All-Ireland Final in order to accommodate a mass hosted by Francis at Croke Park but in the aftermath of a Catholic sex abuse scandal and a movement towards an 'educate together' society, it's safe to assume that sports fans won't be the only ones to meet the pontiff's visit with a degree of chagrin.

You see, the extent to which Ireland has changed in the past couple of decades is nothing short of staggering.

It wasn't long ago that homosexuality was illegal. Now we have a gay leader in a country where gay marriage is not only legal, it's widely welcomed. Christenings are now being shunned while humanist weddings and funerals are all the rage.

These days, the churches are getting emptier and people of all ages are realising that the practice of religion is getting less and less necessary.

Perhaps it's time to ask ourselves, how comfortable are we with a society that picks and chooses four-year-old children for schools based on their religious background?

How comfortable are we to live in a country where a doctrine that the majority of us don't subscribe to could stand in the way of a historic, and hugely important, referendum that could see women have safe access to abortion in their home country?

But despite all these questions, we'll roll out the red carpet once again.

In 2011, we laid on the full welcome wagon for Queen Elizabeth and we'll do it again for Pope Francis next year.

We're the land of Céad Míle Fáilte -  at least we like to think we are.

Perhaps we're ready to remove the final shackles of Catholicism. Perhaps we're not.

One thing is for sure, the Ireland that Pope Francis will be visiting is a hell of a lot different to the one of the previous papal visit in 1979. 

Nothing against ya, Francis. Just don't expect the same level of hysteria as John Paul II or Bieber.

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