Why does the Pope’s visit provoke such bitterness?

(August 2018)

On Saturday, Pope Francis will arrive in Ireland for the World Meeting of Families.

A great many people will be attending the open-air Mass in the Phoenix Park on Sunday, while the Festival of Families event in Croke Park and the visit to Knock Shrine will attract many more pilgrims besides.

Predictably, there has been increasingly negative media coverage in advance of the event, with the eagerness of many to denounce the largest gathering in Ireland for well over a generation becoming ever more obvious.

The prominent abuse survivor (and vocal critic of the hierarchy) Marie Collins has noted the “nastiness beginning to be directed at anyone who wants to go to the Park.”

An event to highlight the suffering endured by abuse victims is being organised to coincide with when the pontiff starts to say Mass, and it will likely attract a substantial number of attendees.

This is entirely understandable. Many, many people have been hurt by a global Church which, as evidenced by the recent grand jury report in Pennsylvania, shows no sign of following the lead of Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin in rooting out the problem.

There is, however, a more sinister undercurrent to some of the planned protests.

The Ireland which Pope Francis will visit is no longer a majority Catholic country, and a large swathe of the population is at best ambivalent about this event. 
A smaller minority are determined to pour scorn upon those who still adhere to the religion of St. Patrick, with the hatred of many stemming not so much from clerical abuse, but from the Catholic Church’s stubborn refusal to adjust its teachings on the sanctity of human life to adapt to current cultural norms.

A cursory glance at the #Stand4Truth hashtag shows how many of the event’s supporters have recently exchanged an image in support of ending the lives of children for a newer image to show their support for protecting those who have been born. Many clearly see no irony in declaring support for both causes simultaneously.

Yet not everyone who is angry that the event is taking place is taking as transparent an approach when it comes to outlining their views.

The likelihood that the influx of visitors to Dublin could cause difficulties in accommodating large numbers of homeless people in hotels – as has become routine under Fine Gael’s stewardship – has been latched upon by several vocal critics.

tweet from the leftist UCD professor Aidan Regan was illustrative: “A gang of lads, led by a Monarch in Rome, coming to Dublin to talk about “family.” Meanwhile, homeless single mothers are pushed out of their hotel rooms. Bloody joke.”

The journalist Sinead Ryan was also at it. “So here’s a random thought: instead of moving the homeless out of Dublin’s hotels for the pope’s visit, let’s move [the] pope’s entourage to the country & tell them housing the homeless is what Jesus would do,” she wrote.

The most ridiculous comment of all came from Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, who took it upon himself to tweet about headlines about families sleeping at Garda stations, and about how homeless people might be moved on account of the Pope’s visit, adding: “Two headlines this morning. Shameful.”

The government which Ó Ríordáin and his Labour Party colleagues served in oversaw an explosion in homelessness figures. Ó Ríordáin was also a government minister when a homeless man died outside the Dáil one freezing cold night before Christmas of 2014. His concern is touching.

The prevalence of anti-Catholicism in Ireland is now so great that more or less any diatribe is sure to receive praise, but choosing homelessness as an issue with which to beat the Catholic Church is surely unwise.

For all its many sins, no institution has done more to assist homeless people, just as no individual world leader has done more to focus attention on the plight of the poor and marginalised.

On Saturday afternoon, the Pope will travel to the Capuchin Day Centre to meet Dublin’s poor for himself.

Every week, thousands of hungry Dubliners receive their meals there, courtesy of Brother Kevin Crowley and his colleagues. Brother Kevin founded the Day Centre 49 years ago, and has worked there ever since, serving those who so many of us do our best to avoid. He receives no salary, and seeks no earthly reward.

This is far from an isolated example of what the Church does to help the poor in this area, in this city, or on this island.

The largest voluntary charitable organisation in the state is St. Vincent de Paul, and its volunteers provide direct financial assistance to those in need – without which far more people would find themselves homeless, and fully dependent upon the state.

The Legion of Mary operates two large hostels in the north inner city: the Morning Star and the Regina Coeli. These hostels are kept going without state support, due to the efforts of hundreds of volunteers.

Then, of course, there is Crosscare, the social support agency of the Archdiocese, which provides accommodation and a wide range of other services to Dublin’s poor.

Aside from the Catholic Church’s own supports, it is also a fact that many of the secular homeless charities have Catholic roots. The two most prominent homelessness campaigners in our recent history have been Father Peter McVerry and Sister Stanislaus Kennedy. Without them, the Peter McVerry Trust would not exist, and neither would Focus Ireland.

Even Threshold – which provides advice to tenants and works to resolve landlord-tenant problems – has a Catholic origin. It was founded in 1978 by another Capuchin, Father Donal O’Mahony.

Far from backing down to the cheap shots from those who hate the Church and what it stands for, Catholics should be proud of what they have done, and of what they are doing to help the least among us.

And yet still the insults come, from politicians and journalists who may have never lifted a finger to relieve the plight of others.

Of all the aforementioned comments, Sinead Ryan’s suggestion of moving the “pope’s entourage” out to the country was the most interesting.

Francis’s personal entourage is of course limited. The temporary shortage of accommodation in Dublin’s hotels stems from the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Irish men, women and children coming here to greet a man who has not just spoken of charity, but lived it as well, in the same way that Brother Kevin and countless other Catholics do.

In spite of all the negative headlines, in spite of the hopes of the critics, this man will be welcomed like no other guest has been since the arrival of Pope John Paul II in 1979.

On Sunday, swathes of people from every parish in the land will gather to hear him speak in the middle of our capital city.

And many a scornful journalist or politician will look on, and wonder about the source of their incomprehension, if only for a moment.

Then they will comfort themselves with the reassuring notion: it’s not me, it’s them.