Saturday, August 25, 2018

"The Stains on Our State" – In Ireland, The Scandals Take Center Stage

While every PopeTrip has its challenges of one kind or another, apart from a trek into an active war-zone, for Francis, this weekend was always bound to be the diciest road-show of all.

And that was even before the latest storm hit.

As practically every commentary going into these days has rehashed, 39 years since the vigorous, newly-elected John Paul II bestrode Ireland like a colossus on the Isle's first-ever papal visit, the soil of saints and missionaries which welcomed Francis this morning is now "Post-Catholic Ireland" – a radically altered tiger from the age of its militant triumphalism... at least, of the ecclesiastical kind.

All of eight decades since John Charles McQuaid (the future archbishop of Dublin) served as a de facto ghostwriter of the Republic's 1937 Constitution, then the 1979 visit marked Éireann's cultural equivalent of the moon landing, the collapse of Irish Catholicism as bulwark of the state has resonated powerfully across the globe over the last decade – first with three massive state inquiries over abuse and its cover-up by dioceses and religious orders alike, then punctuated by successive referenda in 2015 and last spring which respectively abolished constitutional bans on same-sex marriage and abortion, both by roughly 2-to-1 margins.

Within the walls, meanwhile, the change of epoch has been even more pronounced. Despite the church's ongoing near-monopoly control of state-funded schools, the level of religious practice continues a two-decade plummet – in most dioceses, meanwhile, the active presbyterates are in the midst of an epochal crunch of priests. On the latter front, with what's left of the last large ordination classes of the 1960s and '70s now entering retirement, most local churches will have lost two-thirds of their assignable clerics by this decade's end – and it's no outlier, either, to find that the youngest priest in most places is already older than 40.

Like the site-choice of the last World Meeting of Families, the selection of Dublin to host this edition of the triennial Vatican event was intended to spur a reboot for a fallen church that had once been a prized boast of the Catholic world. Under the weight of the latest global round of revelations of abuse and cover-up, however, where John Paul once brought the country to a halt on telling its youth that "I love you," this time Francis' treatment of the scandals has seen the reaction of a new generation of public reaction openly term the Pope "disgraceful" while on Irish soil. In short, even if the church's response to abuse was always bound to loom large over this visit, the crisis' recent amplifications from Chile to Australia – and, above all, last week's cataclysmic grand-jury report after a two year probe of six Pennsylvania dioceses – has effectively scuttled any hope that the weekend visit could serve as a launching-pad for the renewal of the Irish church, long the goal of the capital's Archbishop Dublin Martin, one of the global church's most outspoken top figures on the crisis' toll.

Adding to the cosmic strangeness of it all, in a first for any papal visit, the pontiff's official host for these days is an openly-gay man – Leo Varadkar (below), the physician-son of an Indian immigrant, who came out shortly before his election as Taoiseach (prime minister) at 40 last year.

Having celebrated May's national vote repealing the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution – the state's protection of the right to life of the unborn – as the culmination of a quarter-century's "quiet revolution" that shifted the foundations of Irish society, with Francis already taking sizable criticism even from his usual fan-base over a lacking sense of tone in his Monday letter to the global church on the latest scandals, it's arguably a sign of these roiled times that Varadkar's speech welcoming Francis earlier today at Dublin Castle has been roundly perceived as holding more of the moral high ground on the charged issue than the Pope's subsequent comment on it.

Here, the relevant piece of the Taoiseach's talk:
At times in the past we have failed. There are ‘dark aspects’ of the Catholic Church’s history, as one of our bishops recently said. We think of the words of the Psalm which tells us that ‘children are a heritage from the Lord’ and we remember the way the failures of both Church and State and wider society created a bitter and broken heritage for so many, leaving a legacy of pain and suffering.

It is a history of sorrow and shame.

In place of Christian charity, forgiveness and compassion, far too often there was judgement, severity and cruelty, in particular, towards women and children and those on the margins.

Magdalene Laundries, Mother and Baby Homes, industrial schools, illegal adoptions and clerical child abuse are stains on our State, our society and also the Catholic Church. Wounds are still open and there is much to be done to bring about justice and truth and healing for victims and survivors.

Holy Father, I ask that you use your office and influence to ensure this is done here in Ireland and across the World. 
In recent weeks, we have all listened to heart-breaking stories from Pennsylvania of brutal crimes perpetrated by people within the Catholic Church, and then obscured to protect the institution at the expense of innocent victims. It is a story all too tragically familiar here in Ireland.

There can only be zero tolerance for those who abuse innocent children or who facilitate that abuse.

We must now ensure that from words flow actions.

Above all, Holy Father, I ask to you to listen to the victims....
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Long in the planning – but only announced earlier this week amid a public outcry over its absence from the public schedule – earlier tonight the Pope kept his usual practice in abuse-scarred countries of meeting privately with a group of victims. According to a statement released by several of the survivors in attendance, Francis referred to the church's history of corruption and cover-up as "caca" – in English, literally "shit."

Still, what's likely to be Papa Bergoglio's strongest word on Ireland's 25-year trail of scandal won't come until this visit's tail end – only after Sunday afternoon's closing Mass in the Phoenix Park is Francis slated to deliver his speech to the Irish bishops, literally on the way to Dublin Airport.

Usually a first-day activity for a PopeTrip – and, regardless of location, always the most biting text Francis unleashes on the road – the unusual timing for the encounter leads one to believe the host-bench will be happy to see the back of him... well, even more than they would've been already.

As always, stay tuned.