Belfast Telegraph

Abuse scandal aside, Pope Francis' visit a resounding success

By Ralph Riegel

Pope Francis left the cold rain of Ireland for the steamy August humidity of Rome, contented with his whistle-stop Irish visit.

Despite the dark legacy of the clerical abuse scandal, the appalling weather ahead of the Phoenix Park open air Mass, the exhausting logistics of the packed papal itinerary, and even controversies involving former members of the US hierarchy, the visit of Pope Francis was seen as a resounding success.

The World Meeting of Families, the purpose of the pontiff's visit, was acknowledged by all as a triumph both for the organisers and Ireland.

Massive crowds marked almost all the public papal events - including the 45,000 who gathered in pouring rain for the visit to Knock shrine.

The Croke Park festival, which was the climax on Saturday, left even the most hardened cynics impressed by its combination of entertainment and genuine faith. Croke Park also proved a showcase of the best of Irish arts, culture and music.

Those fortunate enough to come in close contact with Pope Francis also commented on the warmth of the Argentine-born pontiff and his enthusiasm for making his first trip back to Ireland since he studied English here in 1980.

From the outset Pope Francis made it clear it "touched my heart" to return to Ireland.

During his 36 hours in the Republic he did everything possible to address the concerns in modern Irish life.

One of the highlights was undoubtedly his visit to the Capuchin Day Centre, where his concern for the poor and the homeless was palpable.

It is clear Pope Francis is happiest amongst ordinary people, listening to their concerns, problems and talking about the role of the Church in their lives.

At Croke Park in his address, he tackled modern concerns including social media and the isolation of the elderly.

At St Mary's ProCathedral, in a throwback to Pope John Paul's famous 1979 message to the young people of Ireland that they were loved, Pope Francis focused on young people, marriage and the family unit.

But arguably the single most important event was the one not on the papal agenda and staged far from the eyes of the travelling Vatican Press corps.

On Saturday evening, before his journey to Croke Park, Pope Francis met with survivors of clerical, religious and institutional abuse.

The Vatican has steadfastly declined to comment on the meeting.

But one of those present revealed Pope Francis described those who abused children as "caca" or "s***".

He also gave commitments about what the Church can do to offer comfort for those impacted by such abuses.

That comment followed an earlier statement at Dublin Castle by the pontiff that what youngsters had suffered at the hands of those supposed to be serving the Church and protecting children was "repugnant".

For many who campaign for the rights of the abused, Pope Francis did not go far enough during his two days in Ireland.

But for others it represented interventions that were both welcomed and supported.

Fr Patrick McCafferty, a Down and Connor priest who was himself a victim of clerical abuse, met Pope Francis on Saturday in the Papal Nunciature off Dublin's Navan Road.

Later, he told one Northern Ireland reporter after the 90-minute discussion that it was: "A truly excellent meeting in every way."

The key for many will be what Church actions now follow the genuine sympathy and shock shown by Pope Francis at the stories of abuse he was told.

It is also clear that Ireland represents in microcosm the problems facing the Vatican over the fallout from clerical abuse scandals across the world.

A huge media corps attended the papal visit to Ireland - many from the US and UK where clerical abuse controversies are only unfolding.

In some parts of the US they find themselves in a position where Ireland found itself 10 years ago.

For Pope Francis, addressing this dark legacy will prove crucial to the future health of the Church in such countries.

Yet while the abuse issue threatened to overshadow the Papal visit, in the end Ireland's enthusiasm for Pope Francis and the Church he leads did shine through.

Belfast Telegraph


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