Sunday 23 October 2016

Terry Prone: Pope visit would be a triumph of hope over experience

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

It's a measure of the hold that Pope Francis has on the Irish imagination that, as soon as it was mooted that he might come to Ireland in 2018 for the next World Meeting of Families, people began to talk of the fact that he already spent time here.

It turns out that he was here for a short while as a student in 1980, and - it's known - during his stay he often travelled on the bus.

You might be forgiven for thinking that Bus Eireann would immediately ask their vehicle archivist to see if that very bus was still extant, so His Holiness could travel in it again when he hits Dublin.

Because we would like to own a bit of this man, who never ceases to be interesting, and who has that surprised /delighted look to him, despite the magnitude of the problems faced by his Church and his papacy.

It's not just that Ireland would love to host a Pope for the first time in 40 years. It's that we would particularly love to host this particular Pope.

It's also, let's be honest, the fact that hope overcomes experience and that people who were around the last time and who were fervent about the visit of John Paul II can reach across time and disaster to grasp, again, the sense of excitement and promise they had at that time.

If we are honest and cynical, we can admit that a great deal of nonsense and embarrassment stuck to that last visit like barnacles to the bottom of a seagoing vessel.

Objectively, John Paul II did not actually love the young people of Ireland, although they rose to him in the belief that he meant it personally.

Objectively, kissing the tarmac of an international airport is symbolic of nothing in particular, but it seemed to be at the time and it delivered great photographs.

The thing is that there is no objectivity to be applied. A Papal visit is so out of the ordinary, it's as if it sticks a sock in cynicism for the duration, and fills the resultant silence with pageantry and symbols.


People who were not even born when Pope John Paul II came to Ireland have heard their parents and grandparents talk of the emotions they felt when the great jumbo jet came in over the crowds and dipped its great wings.

They can recall, as if it was yesterday, the way they were divided up into squares in the Phoenix Park, like the soldiers in the Battle of Waterloo, and how they carried flasks, because this was a generation before bottles of water with drinking spouts at the top became de rigeur.

They waited for long hours, slightly out of it from lack of sleep, and they drank in the music, the flags, the Mass, the popemobile that carried him around. They walked, thereafter or sat in traffic jams and nothing was too much trouble, because that day was important in their lives. That day, they believed. The intervening years saw a catastrophic destruction of so much that was symbolised during that first Papal visit.

The two men glowing on either side of him in the Phoenix Park - Bishop Eamon Casey and Father Michael Cleary - were revealed to have broken their vows of celibacy and lived less than priestly lives. Then came the landslide of child-abuse allegations, convictions, denial and scandal.

Just a few decades after the Pope's visit, the religious in uniform were being verbally abused in the street, commissions of inquiry were condemning officers of the Church, and the faithful were like survivors on a desert island, living on hopes and memories.

Then came a Pope who was different. Francis was humble, but in a practical, real way. He made no secret of the fact that the Roman Curia needed reform. He was clever, but knew how to make it simple.

He got things wrong, like some of his recent statements about clerical child sex abuse, but he took pains to listen and to make it right. He was warm and approachable, as opposed to formal and reproachful. He personifies the triumph of hope over experience.

Ireland is filled with goodwill towards him. We know how to welcome a Pope, and we would be eager to welcome this particular Pope.

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