Editor’s Note: Una Mullally is a journalist, author and screenwriter from Dublin. She is a columnist with the Irish Times and contributes to the Guardian. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
In Dublin’s Phoenix Park, one of the largest city parks in Europe, final preparations are underway for the arrival of Pope Francis this Sunday.
The park is mostly flat, home to wild deer and the Dublin Zoo, the US ambassador’s residence, the headquarters of the Irish police force, an Garda Síochána, and the home of the President, Áras an Uachtaráin.
But nothing dominates its surroundings like the immense white cross that was erected in 1979 when Pope John Paul II visited Ireland. Then, 1.25 million people – at the time a third of the population of Ireland – came to the Phoenix Park to witness him say Mass.
I live right next to Phoenix Park and on Thursday evening found myself venturing toward the papal cross. As it came into view, an even bigger structure surrounded it, a massive semicircle stage, a smaller one within that, a long walkway from the grass to the stage covered in red carpet, and in the center, slicing through the front of the stage, the 115-foot tall cross, as if to say: still here.
There will be nowhere near the same crowds as there were in 1979 greeting this Pope.
Organizers are estimating 500,000 people, but many doubt that figure. The warnings about long walks through the park to get to the site, along with a forecast for rain, are turning some people off.
This is not an official state visit. The Pope is in Ireland for the World Meeting of Families, a gathering recently described by our former president Mary McAleese – who has emerged as one of the most impactful critics of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy in recent times – as a “right-wing rally.”
The last three years in Ireland have seen huge social change reflected in referendums and legislation: marriage equality in 2015; the progressive Gender Recognition Act in the same year addressing the rights of trans people; and 2018’s referendum removing the eighth amendment, Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion, and legalizing terminations up to 12 weeks.
Pope Francis is arriving into a nation that was once a borderline theocracy, but is now a progressive country where the scales continue to fall from people’s eyes. The generational trauma endured by those who were victims and survivors of the wrongs the Catholic Church and its organizations perpetrated here is still undergoing an audit – and the moral authority of the church and its ability to shut people up through fear and oppression has depleted massively.
Add to that the devastating details of sexual abuse in Pennsylvania, which were widely reported here in Ireland, the pope’s remarks in Chile earlier this year where he essentially denounced survivors of abuse and another wordy letter published by the pope this week where sorry seems to be the easiest word and action is still lacking.
Catholic voices in the media tend to be rather fundamentalist, but the so-called “cultural Catholics” or “à la carte Catholics” of Ireland are now interrogating the past and the hierarchy, along with the Church’s continued role in schools and hospitals.
The pope will be welcomed with fervor by the devout, but that number is waning, with many liberal Catholics left wondering where they fit.
Many Irish people believe that the Catholic Church has not done enough to atone for the abuse its clergy perpetrated, and how it endeavored to cover up that abuse and protect pedophiles.
Add to this the imprisonment of women in Magdalene Laundries, and the illegal trafficking of children from mother and baby homes, which also had frighteningly high mortality rates, and you have a nation of people wanting to face up to the past, instead of brushing it under the carpet.
Colm O’Gorman, the executive director of Amnesty Ireland – and survivor of clerical abuse who sued Pope John Paul II and successfully campaigned for a state inquiry into abuse – is organizing a rally that many are gravitating toward.
Stand for Truth will take place in Dublin city center on Sunday. Thousands will gather in solidarity with survivors of clerical abuse, and then walk to the nearby site of a former Magdalene Laundry, which only closed in 1996.
The atmosphere in Ireland is shifting. Beyond the silly season stories preceding the visit, is a palpable rage. It’s hard to imagine that Pope Francis will be able to get through this trip without facing a tidal wave of public anger.