Belfast Telegraph

Alf McCreary: Pope Francis is clearly a force for good, but Vatican needs to get its house in order

Mass devotion: crowds welcome Pope Francis in Dublin’s Phoenix Park last weekend
Mass devotion: crowds welcome Pope Francis in Dublin’s Phoenix Park last weekend
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

Pope Francis has come and gone, but the problems linger on. Whether or not you were one of the estimated 400,000 people who attended one or more of the his engagements in Ireland last weekend, or watched them on television, or couldn't be bothered either way, it was undoubtedly an historic event.

It is one thing to watch from a distance, but quite something else to take part, as I did in Phoenix Park in Dublin, reporting on the closing mass.

When I went outside the huge media centre to watch the 'Popemobile' being driven through the crowds, the weather was very bad.

I admired the faith of the many thousands of ordinary people who had come to the park to pay their respects, and stood their ground on such an inclement day.

They included a friend of mine from Blackrock, who left her home at 7.15am and did not get back to nearly 9.30pm that night.

It was a physically gruelling day for her, but she found it all so moving and worthwhile. I am sure she was typical of most people who were there.

It is important to underline that many thousands of Irish Catholics were delighted just to be able to see their Pope, including the people from north Belfast whom I interviewed in the wind and rain of Phoenix Park.

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This was also a worldwide event, and I was impressed by the range of reporters, photographers and television film crews from Slovenia, Poland, and God knows where else, working out of the busy media centre.

The pastoral aspect of the Pope's visit, and his humanity, sensitivity and goodness should not be overlooked.

Unfortunately for him, for the Vatican and for the Irish Church, the agenda was rapidly overtaken by the issue of clerical sex abuse.

This was hardly a surprise, given the dreadful historical record in Ireland, and also the fact that the awful revelations about extensive clerical child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania had surfaced only a week or so before the Pope arrived in Dublin.

The Pope sadly wasted a big opportunity to outline what, if anything, the Vatican was doing to deal with the issue, and instead issued apologies.

By far the best speech was that of the Taioseach, Leo Varadkar, who outlined in a polite but masterful way that people want more than apologies, and that while the Church has a welcome role in Irish affairs, it is no longer centre stage - that applied to all churches.

There were two particular developments which were pivotal.

The private meeting between the Pope and the eight survivors of clerical abuse, according to our own Fr Paddy McCafferty, who was present, shocked the pontiff so deeply that he was visibly moved. He was angered to the point where he used a dirty word to describe the very dirty work carried out by so many abusing priests over so many years.

This may be one reason why Pope Francis surprised all of us, including the hard-bitten media and other Vatican observers, by suddenly reading out with, at the beginning of the closing mass, a deeply felt and hand-written apology delivered in Spanish.

Perhaps the awfulness of it all had hit him overnight after meeting the survivors.

However, this begs the question, why had no one in the Irish Church or Rome told him this beforehand?

The visit did not alter my view from the start that Pope Francis is a good man trying to bring light into the darkness of this world, and also to trying to combat the darkness of the cynical die-hards who are trying to block him in Rome.

His Irish visit may still bear fruit in the long term, but he needs to do much more personally in the limited time at his disposal.

They say it takes several miles to turn around a big oil tanker, but how much more time - and how many Popes - will it take to turn around the Vatican, which thinks not in years but in centuries?

Despite that, people of faith and goodwill who witnessed at close-hand the good-natured, deeply spiritual and elderly Pope Francis doing his best on his Irish mission last weekend will never forget it.

Belfast Telegraph


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