Visit a reminder of all the good the Church does in Ireland

Visit a reminder of all the good the Church does in Ireland Minister for Health Simon Harris, Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan and Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection Regina Doherty at Dublin Castle after the Pope's and Taoiseach's addresses.
Everyone who came away from an encounter with the Pope was uplifted, writes David Quinn


My first reaction to the address by Leo Varadkar to Pope Francis in Dublin Castle was positive but since then it has become a lot less so. Indeed, I think the address, and the reaction of the Government to the papal visit as a whole, was indicative of a State that probably has a worse relationship with the Catholic Church than practically any other country in the Western world.

I was comparing and contrasting how Popes, and other government leaders in other countries, have greeted each other when they have met.

For example, when Pope Benedict was leaving Britain following his visit in 2010, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, was totally upbeat about the visit. He said to the Pope: “People do not have to share a religious faith or agree with religion on everything to see the benefit of asking the searching questions that you, your Holiness, have posed to us about our society and how we treat ourselves and each other.”

He described the visit as “an incredibly moving four days for our country”.

When President Barack Obama visited Pope Benedict in Rome in 2009, the atmosphere was mutually respectful. Each acknowledged areas of agreement and disagreement. They agreed about fighting poverty. They disagreed about abortion and other bioethical issues. But there was none of the unease that seemed to envelop Church/State encounters last weekend.

When Pope Benedict visited France in 2008, President Sarkozy was extremely cordial. France has a deeply, sometimes aggressively secular political culture, but Sarkozy was entirely welcoming towards Benedict and praised the religious contribution to society.

In Britain, France, and the US, the Church has been embroiled in scandals, just like here. But the scandals did not overshadow the meetings between Pope Benedict and David Cameron, Barack Obama or Nicolas Sarkozy. During the papal visit to Ireland, they overshadowed everything, and this is despite the apparent personal popularity of Pope Francis compared with Pope Benedict.

A big part of the explanation for this is that the Catholic Church has never been a dominant force in the US, nor has it been for several centuries in either Britain or France. It just goes to show that it is almost invariably bad for the Church (any Church) when it becomes too powerful. Too many ‘legacy’ issues are created.

A hand-out for journalists in the Dublin Castle media centre more or less set the tone for the Church/State part of the visit. It emphasised how ‘diverse’ and ‘equal’ Ireland now is, and put front and centre our votes in favour of same-sex marriage, and the law that permits women to identify as men and vice versa.

In his Dublin Castle address, Leo Varadkar at least acknowledged the past contribution of the Church to Ireland, not least in health and education. He more or less acknowledged that the Church provided a sort of early welfare state. Indeed, strictly speaking, the welfare state throughout the Western world is the inheritor of Christianity’s centuries-long outreach to the poor, the sick and the lonely.

But he spent the rest of the address trying to set out what the future state of Church/State relations should be. Essentially, he envisages the Church being a handmaid to the State, with organisations like St Vincent de Paul and Crosscare filling in the gaps in the services the State offers to people.

But the basic message was that Ireland is now a secular, liberal society and this underlying ideology is not to be questioned.


For his part, Pope Francis did, albeit very briefly, question that ideology. He spoke of a “throwaway culture” that makes us “increasingly indifferent to the poor” and leads to us discarding the most helpless, including the unborn. He also referred to growing family breakdown.

The Taoiseach spoke about the scandals but never acknowledged the very robust child protection systems the Church in Ireland now has in place and has had for roughly two decades. That would have been gracious of him. In fact, it could have been pointed out that the Irish Church’s child protection standards are what the whole Catholic world should copy.

The Church overall was subjected to relentless and mostly hostile media analysis during and in the run-up to the visit. But the visit itself, and the World Meeting of Families at the RDS, was a reminder to those of us who took part in any of it, that there is still a Church here in this country that does tremendous good work and is full of people of good will.

Walking around the RDS you saw that good work and good will on display. Groups had stands setting out what they do to help the poor, the homeless, those whose marriages are in trouble, those experiencing difficult pregnancies and so on.

We are also saw the sheer ethnic diversity of the Church. There were Catholics in attendance from all over the world and they were cheerful and upbeat about their Faith. That was good for us Irish Catholics to witness because we can be tempted to think that the experience of the Irish Church is the experience of the Church everywhere. It is far from the case.

Those who want to the papal events at Croke Park, Knock and Phoenix Park will have witnessed something similar. Everyone who came away from these events felt uplifted. They were reminders of what their Church and their Catholic, Christian faith is really all about; serving God, following Jesus, being part of a huge Christian community that has its troubles, yes, but it also has a present and a future, as well as a past.

We belong to a Church that has its human flaws, but which also contains some of the best that humanity has to offer. Let’s never forget that.