Building on the energy of the parish priest of the world

Building on the energy of the parish priest of the world

One of the primary duties of the Pope is to confirm Catholics in their Faith. That is the principle motivation behind all papal travel. Irish Catholics experienced something of this during the momentous visit of Pope Francis at the weekend. Leading up to the Holy Father’s arrival, the media coverage was relentlessly negative.

From fears that a measles epidemic would break out at Mass in the Phoenix Park to complaints about the cost of the trip, the mood music was intensely antagonistic. It was against this backdrop that almost 40,000 people each day started pouring into Dublin’s RDS during the week to participate in the pastoral congress of the World Meeting of Families. The joy was palpable. People had come together to share their Faith and reflect on the challenges and opportunities facing families.

Former President Mary McAleese had dismissed the gathering as a “right-wing rally”. It’s a pity she decided to boycott the event. In the RDS, she would’ve found happy and faith-filled Catholics. There were people of all ages and walks of life trying to walk together on the journey of living their Christian faith as a family. The Church, after all, is the family of families.

Papal visits are grace-filled moments – opportunities to reflect on the past and chart a new direction for the future. As Pope Francis arrived on Saturday morning, his first functions were political – a visit to President Higgins and the civic reception at Dublin Castle.

He really came into himself when he arrived at the pro-cathedral later in the afternoon to talk to couples about marriage and family life. His advice was remarkably on the nose and many people marvelled at the sight of a celibate man in his early 80s offering such insights into marriage. His secret? Pope Francis has spent a lifetime hearing Confessions. Even now, when he visits the parishes of Rome he always sets aside an hour to hear Confession.

He has spent probably thousands of hours listening to the joys and hopes, sorrows and despairs of ordinary Catholics – people he describes as God’s holy faithful people. Similarly, at the Capuchin Day Centre Francis got to spend time with the people he loves most – those who are vulnerable and on the margins of the “throwaway culture”.


The first glimpse many got of Francis – apart from on the television – was when he arrived in Croke Park. It’s no exaggeration to say that the stadium erupted with joy and welcome. People have been preparing for the visit for almost three years: this was the moment they saw the Successor of St Peter in person. Again, he thrilled those present with his powerful reflections on marriage and family life.

He had been late for Croke Park because of his meeting with survivors. At the Mass on Sunday morning, he again turned to the appalling betrayal of trust caused by the abuse scandals and their cover-up. He spoke with compassion and sought forgiveness. The fact that his penitential remarks at the Mass were interrupted four times by the congregation shows the extent to which his words were necessary and appreciated by the faithful as part of the healing process.

As Francis departed, there was much reflection on the lasting legacy of the trip. In a way, it’s too soon to say. But what we must take from the visit is fresh heart. We have a proud legacy as a Church in Ireland, notwithstanding the dark chapters of recent decades.

Catholics clung to their Faith through centuries of persecution and the fact that Irish people still identify as Catholic is down to the sheer devotion and tenacity of their forefathers and foremothers. That is something to take pride in.

Pope Francis sets a beautiful example as a pastor. He has a heart for people that shines out in the way he always gravitates towards the most vulnerable. Like a mother who loves all her children equally, but loves each more only when they need it, Francis displays the loving heart of God.

Ireland needs the “revolution of tenderness” that the Pope described during his trip. The wider culture is often hostile towards the Church and even hostile to discussions about things spiritual. But, Christianity thrived in the pagan culture of the Roman Empire because people allowed their lives to be transformed by the Gospel and this attracted people to that same Gospel.

The challenge of Francis, the parish priest of the world, is for each and every person who describes themselves as a Catholic to embrace every day a more authentic and joy-filled living out of the Gospel.