Ireland is not a catholic country

THE failure of the Government to declare a day of mourning on the death of John Paul II and the failure of the Catholic Church here to demand it is an amazing summary of the changes that have taken place in Ireland since the late pope’s visit in 1979.

I was one of the 1.3 million people who travelled to the Phoenix Park to see the pope. I remember the day vividly. I remember the excitement, the Aer Lingus plane overhead and the crowd. During the day, I made my way up near the altar and I climbed up on a fencepost to look back over the Fifteen Acres. I will never forget the massive expanse of humanity spread before me.

Probably, such a crowd would have turned out for any pope but that couldn’t take away from the decision of John Paul II to visit here. It meant a lot to a lot of people in Ireland. As such I, a diehard secularist, find the decision not to have a day of mourning just a little bit grubby.

After all the economic success we have had; and after all the impact the church has had, for good and bad, over the last 26 years; after all the energy we have spent as a nation in our relationship with the church in debates over contraception, homosexuality, divorce and abortion; we couldn’t spare one day’s moneymaking to mark the departure of such a major character from the stage. The “greasy till” quote comes back to mind.

Was it not extraordinary that the church did not even close its own institutions for the pope’s funeral? Could you imagine that happening in the 1970’s?

This is a new humility that the church has learned. It wasn’t any of the battles over the liberal agenda items listed above which knocked the stuffing out of it – it was the scandal of paedophilia that rocked the catholic church to its foundations. Simply, the church betrayed its most fervent supporters by its failure to protect children under its care.

That so many catholics stayed loyal to the church in these circumstances bore witness to the fact that faith is carried in the people rather than in the institutions. The church has a new-found respect for its followers.

And it has an even greater understanding that the separation of church and state is not a death sentence for the church. Far from it. The church will no longer have to share the blame for state failure in health and education. It frees up the church to criticise the state, rather that being part of the system.

It was amazing to hear people on vox pops on RTE and Newstalk still say that “Ireland is a catholic country”. How could anyone with a whit of republicanism say such a thing? Have they ever looked at the flag? Have they been asleep these last thirty-five years of the troubles?

Ireland is not a ‘catholic country” and both Ireland and the Catholic Church are the better for it.

Pope John Paul II stood his ground on fundamental catholic teachings. If the next pope does the same, will the influence of the church here increase or decline? A sound analysis might be that organised religion is in decline anyway and that the church might as well hold on to its present teachings rather than trying to follow the crowd.

In this way Pope John Paul II will have left something of a refuge from the modern world that a lot of people will find comfort in.