The outcome of the abortion referendum in Ireland in May was obviously a huge shock to the pro-life movement in Ireland and overseas. It was not simply that we were beaten, it was the scale of the thing.
We were defeated by a two-to-one margin, which was exactly the size of our victory back in 1983 when a pro-life clause was inserted into the Constitution. Even the pro-choice side was surprised by the margin of its success.
Four years before the 1983 referendum, Pope John Paul II visited Ireland, becoming the first pontiff to do so. It was a massive national occasion. More than a million people attended Mass in Phoenix Park in Dublin. During the visit, John Paul said that the Irish people were at a fork in the road and could either keep the Catholic faith or walk the secular path of other Western societies.
“The Irish people have to choose today their way forward,” he said. “Will it be the transformation of all strata of humanity into a new creation, or the way that many nations have gone, giving excessive importance to economic growth and material possessions while neglecting the things of the spirit? The way of substituting a new ethic of temporal enjoyment for the law of God? The way of false freedom which is only slavery to decadence?”
It is now clear what choice we have made. The abortion referendum result swept away any illusions we might have had on that score. Exit polls revealed that even a third of weekly Mass-goers had voted in favour of repealing the pro-life amendment.
This is the situation into which Pope Francis will be walking next month when he travels to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families.
He will arrive on the morning of Saturday, August 25 and will leave the following evening. The big set-piece will be another papal Mass in Phoenix Park. Pope Francis will also speak at an event on the Saturday night in Croke Park, the huge Gaelic games stadium on the north side of Dublin.
The next morning, he will travel to Knock Basilica in the west of Ireland where he will say the Angelus. In between times he will meet politicians and leaders of civil society. He will also drop into a shelter for the homeless run by the Capuchins and visit the Dominican convent beside the apostolic nunciature in Dublin, where he will address the bishops. Then he will leave for the airport.
What is missing from the schedule is a visit to Northern Ireland. Catholics in the North are understandably very disappointed about this. Apparently the Pope is not visiting the Six Counties because his schedule is so tight, and out of a fear that it might overshadow the World Meeting of Families itself. (This is quite possible as the visit would be so historic.)
Comparisons will inevitably be made with St John Paul’s visit almost 40 years ago. We will compare the much more Catholic Ireland of then with the vastly more secular Ireland of today. Numbers attending papal events then and now will be compared.
On that score, numbers at the upcoming events seem likely to surprise some observers. The size of the congregations attending the Mass at the Phoenix Park will be down substantially, but that is in part because, in today’s environment of strict health and safety rules and high insurance costs, a ceiling of 500,000 people has been set. Those tickets have already been taken up even though they only became available late last month. In addition, about another 100,000 people will be present at Knock Basilica and Croke Park combined.
Those figures are high in the present climate and would probably be higher still were it not for the aforementioned enforced limitations. What is the explanation for the demand? How could we vote for abortion by a margin of two to one and then see so many snapping up tickets for papal events?
Perhaps we do not have to look too far for the answer. Despite the strong secularising currents, about a million adults still attend Mass each week in Ireland. Many of them will be attending the various events. So will tens of thousands from overseas.
Plenty of “cultural Catholics” will also be there. These are the people who attend church at Christmas and maybe at Easter, and who also like to avail themselves and their children of the sacraments at important times in their lives.
Many people in Ireland are still happy to self-identify as Catholic despite all that has happened here in recent decades. The challenge facing both the Church in Ireland and Pope Francis is in calculating how to invite those cultural Catholics more deeply into their faith without accommodating them so much that the faith itself is compromised. That, indeed, is the challenge everywhere.
David Quinn is a columnist with the Sunday Times and the Irish Catholic. He is the founder and director of the Iona Institute (ionainstitute.ie). His latest book is How we killed God (and other tales of modern Ireland), published by Currach Press
This article first appeared in the July 13 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here