Belfast Telegraph

Why Pope Francis will be playing to a tougher crowd this time round

It's official: Pope Francis will visit Ireland - north and south - for a landmark trip next summer. Nearly four ­decades after the last papal visit, what fanfare can be ­expected from a Republic that may officially still be overwhelmingly Catholic but, in practice, not very religious at all, wonders John Meagher

The excitement had been growing for weeks. When Pope John Paul II touched down on Irish soil for a heavily scheduled three-day visit on September 29, 1979, it was at fever pitch.

The No 1 single in the Republic was Dana's Totus Tuus - a song of worship whose title was derived from the pontiff's favoured catchphrase, "Totally yours".

Flags fluttered everywhere. It was as if the World Cup was on, but rather than the tricolour they bore the pale yellow and white of the Vatican.

An estimated 1.3 million people attended the Papal Mass at the Phoenix Park and hundreds of thousands more turned up for engagements in Galway, Limerick, Clonmacnoise and elsewhere.

The Dublin congregation was judged to have been the largest concentration of people anywhere in Europe since the end of the Second World War - and an even bigger turnout than the Eucharistic Congress, which had brought the city and country to a standstill in 1932.

On the face of it, it appeared as though the Catholic Church's exalted position in Ireland was as unshakeable as it had been since the foundation of the Irish state.

It was among the most conservative countries in Europe, one where divorce was outlawed, abortion was not permitted, contraception was not officially available and where homosexuality was criminalised.

Fast-forward 39 years and another pontiff will play an official visit to this country. But the Ireland that Pope Francis will see could hardly be more different to the one that the late John Paul II encountered at the tail end of the 1970s.

The place that was so intrinsically Catholic will look unrecognisable. Divorce was introduced in 1995 and is now an everyday part of life. Contraception is available to all and can be purchased in any convenience store.

Homosexuality has not just been decriminalised, but gay marriage has been given equal legal status with traditional marriage. Assuming there's no seismic political change between now and August, Francis will be met by a gay Taoiseach - an inconceivable thought when Jack Lynch was in the final months of his premiership in 1979.

And when the Argentinian Pope arrives here, abortion could well be legal in all cases up to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

So, just how Catholic will the Ireland of 2018 be? A good port of call is last year's census figures. They don't make for happy reading for church authorities here.

The number of people who marked themselves down as having no religion jumped by 74% and 45% of those who class themselves as having no religion are in the 20-39 age bracket.

But when one considers the hammering that the Church has taken in recent years - from the institutional abuse scandals that first came to light, in a deluge, from the early 1990s, right up to the horror of the mass grave of babies at the Tuam mother and baby home - it is perhaps surprising that 78% of the population still put their religion down as Catholic.

Tom Inglis, associate professor of sociology at UCD, is an authority on religion in Ireland. "The census confirms that Ireland is less Catholic than it was five years ago, but it is not a tsunami. Religion is not in the hearts, in the minds or on the lips of Catholics."

The sociologist says that there is still a diminishing group of orthodox Catholics who remain loyal members of the institutional Church. But the majority are what he terms "cultural Catholics".

They connect with the Church during important rites of passage in their lives, and those of their children. Their Catholic identity remains important, even if they do not live out most of their lives in a spiritual realm. It's a demographic that has been derided by more devout followers as "a la carte Catholics", who pick and choose the aspects of the Bible that best suit their way of life.

Church attendance - once the key indicator of the faith of the nation - has fallen spectacularly from the highs of the past. Figures are difficult to ascertain although it has been reported that in certain Dublin parishes the number of Catholics regularly going to Mass has dwindled to just 3%.

David Quinn, founder of the conservative think-thank the Iona Institute, believes church-going attendances are much higher than what's customarily thought.

"The European Social Survey showed that 36% of Irish people attend church regularly," he says. "It's a far greater proportion than the rest of Europe where the figure lies at around 12%. There are still a lot of people for whom their faith means a lot and I sense that any of the younger people going to church now are doing it because they truly want to."

Quinn believes many will be surprised by the large turnout that will greet Pope Francis here next year. "Unless, there are limits on crowds for insurance purposes or whatever, I think hundreds of thousands will show up.

"There hadn't been a lot of people expected for (Pope Francis's predecessor) Benedict when he visited Britain some years ago but more than 400,000 attended."

Quinn says there is still a large swathe of the population who feel strongly about their Catholicism, but he argues that their views are often not aired in the media and appear to have been airbrushed by the "group-think" on social media.

"You had 38% of the population who voted no two years ago (in the marriage equality referendum), but their voices were not heard much in the run-up to the vote. It's the same with abortion."

Quinn argues that the unshakeable dogma that used to be associated with the Catholic Church is now a feature of liberal commentators "who are so convinced they are right all the time that they will not countenance another point of view".

He says Irish Catholics now have to contend with an aggressive secularisation - one where, as he points out, members of Labour Youth at Maynooth College can feel free to tweet a pro-abortion message, or, in a separate stunt carried out by others, where the image of a Repeal sweatshirt is draped over a Church altar and is widely praised on Facebook.

"They wouldn't dare to do something like that against Islam," he says. "It could be career-ending.

"But being sectarian towards Catholics is okay in the Ireland of today, it seems."

Belfast Telegraph

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