There has been a lot of excitement in Ireland in anticipation of the long awaited visit of Pope Francis. Those of us who are old enough still have fond memories of the last time a pope visited Irish shores. In 1979, almost everyone I knew travelled to the Phoenix Park in Dublin where Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass for over a million people. The iconic message delivered to throngs of young people at a youth Mass in Galway, “Young people of Ireland, I love you” which was followed by rapturous applause has gone down in history as the most memorable moment of the whole visit. That one expression of a heartfelt love and the enthusiasm of the response from thousands of teenagers and young adults captured the imagination of the nation and was reported on with glowing positivity.
Fast forward almost 40 years as we are about to welcome Pope Francis and we are in a very different Ireland. In the lead up to the visit, the reporting and media coverage has been generally negative. There were stories about the need to be up to date with one’s vaccinations; that large crowds could be a health risk; with mention of pop up morgues and risks for the elderly or infirm. The old arguments also resurfaced centring on the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality, its place in education, women’s role in the Church, the sexual abuse of children and accusations of the Church excluding gay people.
This approach to the visit of Pope Francis may give the impression of a Church that is on its last legs; not quite dead, but rapidly heading in that direction. After three days attending the World Meeting of Families 2018 Pastoral Congress in the RDS in Dublin, I saw a very different Church, one that has a valuable message for our times, a message that is as relevant today as it was over two thousand years ago.
The theme song for the World Meeting of Families 2018 is “The Joy of Love”, the joy of the family of Christ which, even when broken, bowed or wounded, has a hope that shines brightly in the darkness. There was a visible sense of that joy among the people who came from Ireland, the UK and all over the world to pray, to listen, to learn, to interact and to celebrate. Over the course of the week of the congress, there was an ambitious programme with an impressive lineup of speakers, daily Mass, music and adoration and so many stands and displays in the main hall that it would have been impossible to visit them all. Like the other pilgrims, I spent three days racing around, being both inspired and humbled, challenged and enriched.
There were numerous different subjects touched on but all centred on the unique dignity and value of every human being and the importance of the family as a school of learning Christian values. On the first day, I opted to attend Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle’s presentation – Choose Life: Pope Francis on the “throw-away” Culture. In his appealingly good-humoured way, Cardinal Tagle traced the history of planned obsolescence and the production of products with an artificially limited useful life and linked this to a culture of viewing people as expendable. Drawing on Laudato Si, the care for our common home and Amoris Laetitia, he talked about how, in our present world, people can be viewed in a “transactional fashion” and treated as commodities.
After the recent referendum on abortion in Ireland, Cardinal Tagle’s reference to the words of Pope Francis on the throwaway culture rang very true. The unborn child, the elderly, the sick and those with disabilities, prisoners, migrants and those who have been victims of human trafficking are often discarded, cast aside as being of lesser value.
Archbishop Eamon Martin in his homily, during a celebration of Mass in the family arena, also spoke of the key place in society of the family quoting St Pope John Paul II, “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.” He pointed out that the welfare of the family is crucial to the welfare of the world and how supporting families in all their complexity should be a prime consideration of those concerned with promoting the common good of society. We should approach our politicians and ask them to what extent their policies support families and life.
The week of the congress was a time of great grace. The various speakers on topics affecting families included Dr Mary Aiken on turning technology to the greater good; talks on marriage, marriage preparation and sexuality in marriage; a harrowing account of human trafficking from “Maya”, a survivor of slavery and abuse and topics that explored every possible family situation and every challenge that families might face.
There was a packed hall for Bishop Robert Barron who described the family as “the place par excellence for the growth in virtue” and how growing in virtue makes us truly free. Seeing the large crowds queuing to get into the hall for his talk, I pondered on how the recent portrayals of the Catholic faith as a relic of the past is way off the mark. I think Bishop Barron’s upbeat and insightful words would have attracted the greatest cynic to what the faith of Christ offers us and our families. He spoke in a language that parents could understand about training our children, the self-giving that is central to true love and the challenges of trying to raise a child in the faith.
I was really uplifted and energised at seeing how many initiatives and projects have been started, many directly responding to the social justice doctrine of the Church reaching out to the poor, the homeless and the vulnerable.
Those who had been dragged down by unrelenting negativity left with bags full of books and information, medals and pencils and hope in their hearts, refuelled spiritually and really to take on the task of evangelising our lovely country.
Ireland is often called Ireland of the thousand welcomes. The Irish are known for their great welcome; as we welcome Pope Francis to Ireland, we must also work hard to ensure that there is also a welcome for our ancient values, ones that are forever new and that have a place in the public square. Seeing the mothers, fathers, teenagers and small children singing joyfully together during the final Mass of the week, I felt sure that what we have, the joy we have as Catholics, is a joy for the whole world and a joy worth sharing.