What the Pope said… and didn’t say

What the Pope said… and didn’t say Pope Francis speaking at Dublin Castle when he visited Ireland last year.
The blandness of Francis’ speeches in Ireland is mysterious, writes David Quinn


It is now one month since Pope Francis was in Ireland. If you were to conduct a poll and ask people what they remember about the visit, how would they respond?

If you asked them what the Pope had to say, I think the top answer by far would be his various references to the scandals. What would be No.2, and how distant a No.2 would it be? Would people bring to mind what the Pope said about too much use of social media? Or that families must always be ready to say “please”, “sorry” and “thank you” to each other?

Perhaps instead they would remember the images. For example, his visit to Knock, or meeting families and couples face-to-face at the Pro-Cathedral or Croke Park, or offering words of comfort to the homeless at the Capuchin Day Centre. In other words, they would remember a pastoral Pope, and that is not to be underestimated.


Pope Francis, it seems to me, wants to be remembered first and foremost as a pastoral Pope, and only secondly as a teaching one. Pope Benedict was a teaching Pope first and foremost, because that is what what he was by training and vocation: a teacher and, more specifically, a university lecturer.

St John Paul II was also a university lecturer, but he did plenty of pastoral work as well, especially in his earlier years as a priest, and was particularly good with young people. He seemed to draw energy from them.

Unfortunately, the scandals almost certainly overshadowed to a large extent everything else Pope Francis tried to do while here. That was probably unavoidable, but most likely reduced the World Meeting of Families itself – the reason for him being here – to a footnote from the point of view of the general public.

But even allowing for the fact that Pope Francis wishes to emphasise the pastoral, his written statements while here were still curiously lacking in anything memorable or substantial, especially in comparison with what he has sometimes had to say on other trips abroad.

For instance, he was in Lithuania last weekend, and when meeting civic and political leaders he took the opportunity to warn, in effect, against populist, nationalist movements. He said: “If we look at the world scene in our time, more and more voices are sowing division and confrontation – often by exploiting insecurity or situations of conflict – and proclaiming that the only way possible to guarantee security and the continued existence of a culture is to try to eliminate, cancel or expel others.”

This was fairly confrontational stuff, considering the rising support for nationalist parties that wish to curb immigration in countries such as Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and of course there is the impending(?) departure of the UK from the EU, which is very much a nationalist impulse.

The Pope seems to be setting his face against these movements. You expect the head of the Catholic Church to speak out for or against developments that seem to go for or against the Gospel message.

When Francis was in Georgia in 2015, in off-the-cuff remarks he lambasted ‘gender theory’ (the idea that differences between the sexes are irrelevant and that we get to choose our own gender) as a major threat to the family.

Speaking to a woman who gave her testimony in front of him, the Pontiff said, “you mentioned a great enemy of marriage today: gender theory”.

“Today the whole world is at war trying to destroy marriage,” noting that this war isn’t being fought with arms “but with ideas”.

There are “certain ideologies that destroy marriage”, he said. “So we need to defend ourselves from ideological colonisation.”

In Ireland he said nothing as strong as what he said in either Lithuania or Georgia. In his address in Dublin Castle to political and civil leaders, he briefly mentioned the “throwaway culture” that leads to abortion. He briefly mentioned Church/State relations, but there was little flesh on the bones.

Likewise, with all his other addresses in Ireland. We have had major referendums on marriage and the right to life, both of which are obviously intimately wrapped up with family life.

Few countries in the last few years have been witness to such radical attacks on the family and the right to life as Ireland. We are a prime example of how a given ideology can colonise a country. We saw the huge pressure we came under from the likes of the UN and even the big multi-nationals.

The Pope was never going to directly confront the Government about these things, but there was plenty of scope to expand on them, as he has done on previous foreign trips. Pope Francis is well capable of doing so, as we have seen.


So, why didn’t it happen this time? Presumably he was acting on local advice. When a Pope visits a country, especially one he has little familiarity with, he will be extremely reliant on local advice. When Pope John Paul II came here in 1979, his addresses were written by the late Cardinal Cahal Daly, and they were very meaty.

When Pope Benedict visited Britain, France and Germany he had a great deal to say about Church and State and the place of religion in society. He probably wrote most of these addresses himself, as these were areas of great interest to him.

Who was mainly responsible for writing Pope Francis’s Irish addresses? Was there a conscious decision to avoid controversial topics, to not really challenge the body politic or the wider society?

To repeat: Pope Francis himself is well capable of speaking about these issues. It could have been done in a way that was thought-provoking without being confrontational. So why didn’t this happen on the trip, especially in view of what happened in May? It would be good to know the answers to those questions.