Belfast Telegraph

Alf McCreary: Pope Francis will visit a much-changed land from Ireland in 1979

John Paul II was welcomed like a superstar, but there has since been a massive loss of trust, says religious correspondent Alf McCreary

The visit of Pope Francis to the Republic this weekend brings my mind back inevitably to the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979, which I covered for this newspaper.

Many commentators have written extensively in the past few weeks about the social and political changes on this island during the past 40 years. They've also covered - rightly - the huge scandal of clerical child abuse that hangs over the Catholic Church and will do so for many years to come.

Back in 1979, when much of this abuse was taking place and largely undetected, Pope John Paul II was warmly welcomed as a clerical superstar - good looks, a way with people and the showmanship of an actor, which he had been in his youth.

No one at that stage recognised, or wanted to recognise, that John Paul II was a very conservative Pope whose Catholic faith was forged and developed in the harsh reality of the Nazi occupation in his native Poland.

When I reported on his visit to Knock in 1979, everyone was agog that the Pope was actually in Ireland.

There was the bonus that he was literally God's gift to television and media because he knew how to make the most of every occasion, huge or small.

I was lucky enough to secure one of the four media places in the huge and crowded Knock Basilica, and when he entered the building the entire congregation broke into the contemporary pop tune Viva Espana.

Among the congregation was a large group of trainee priests, at a time when the Catholic Church was attracting large groups of ordinands, unlike today when they are as rare as hens' teeth.

Despite the almost-party atmosphere in Knock, John Paul II had serious business to attend to, and as he walked from the building to deliver his homily on a huge platform outside he passed me only about four feet away.

As he moved slowly at the head of a very large entourage, I realised that at that stage he had no control of events - a bit like other world figures including the Queen or a US President when they are on a major tour.

That day Pope John Paul II looked just like another human under time pressure, though as he passed me I noticed a female steward drop to her knees.

He reached across to her and she kissed his papal ring with a look on her face as if it was a divine moment. In that riveting cameo the humanity and also the huge privilege and grave responsibility of being a Pope was reflected on the relatively youthful John Paul's kindly expression.

The rest of the visit to Knock was an anticlimax. The bad weather came in from the west and the Pope delivered his homily to tens of thousands in the surrounding fields who were sheltering from the rain.

The low cloud base was such that the 'popemobile' tour of the crowds was abandoned, and John Paul II - who had been kept late in Galway by the infamous Bishop Casey of all people - was whisked back to Dublin by helicopter.

In the media centre, based in a part of the church complex where the confessional boxes had been turned into phone booths for the many reporters in Knock, some of the correspondents had already written their copy about a "successful popemobile tour".

When this was cancelled there was consternation among many journalists, who expressed their feelings in strong, non-family language and had to start writing their stories again.

As a dutiful reporter I went into the rain-sodden fields to get reaction from the individuals and families who were deeply disappointed by the Pope's sudden departure.

However, no one would say a word against him or against the Catholic Church which, to some extent, had mishandled the occasion by staying too long in Galway.

That respectful silence would not be kept today.

Some of my abiding memories of Knock are very human, including the sight of men in JCBs taking down drink signs outside pubs before the pontiff's arrival.

This would have gladdened the heart of any Pioneer-pin wearing Catholic or strict teetotal Presbyterian.

Another abiding memory of Knock was the scene of thousands making their way home in the rain. There was also a sense of history having been made and a certain joy of having been there. For example, as I left the media centre I walked past the large Garda band who had been on duty all day.

They were gleefully playing a lively tune which I had heard every July since my boyhood - The Sash My Father Wore.

Looking back, there was much more a sense of happiness then, perhaps even of innocence, despite the Troubles, which were still raging savagely.

Now as I prepare to go to the closing Mass in the Phoenix Park, I wonder what the atmosphere will be like.

Of course, there will be a range of emotions from joy to mere curiosity, but the run-up to this visit has revealed a huge diminution of trust of the Catholic Church in Ireland, which the Primate, Archbishop Eamon Martin, admitted publicly this week.

I also have some sympathy for Pope Francis as a human being. He has inherited massive worldwide problems of clerical sex abuse and other matters.

People say he should do more, and of course he should. However, he is also a frail and elderly man, he is visiting Ireland for some 36 hours and there is only so much he can do.

In days to come we will all assess the impact of this papal visit, but there is no doubt that Ireland today is tougher, more worldly-wise and sceptical, a much less "religious" society than it was Pope John Paul II visited in 1979.

However, the Catholic Church has no one to blame for this lack of trust but itself.

That is something which saddens me most of all.

Belfast Telegraph

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