Well, he’s said it. At the exuberant closing mass in driving rain of his visit to Ireland, the Pope has asked, off script, forgiveness for the wrongs committed by the church. Specifically he asked forgiveness for ‘the abuses in Ireland; abuses of power, conscience, and sexual abuses perpetrated by members with roles of responsibility in the church… in a special way we ask pardon for all the abuses committed by members with roles of responsibility… for all the abuses committed in various types of institutions run by male or female religious and by other members of the church. We ask forgiveness of those cases of exploitation through manual work that so many young women and men were subjected to. We ask forgiveness.’ The congregation received the remarks in what seemed like grateful silence, and responded with applause. The poor bloody infantry of Irish Catholicism have had a lot to put up with over the last few years; this felt like the Pope giving them hope.
This amounts to an apology not just for the crimes committed in Ireland by sexually predatory priests but for the industrial schools run by the church and the institutions like the Magdalene laundries and the mother and baby homes to which unmarried mothers were committed. Separately, he asked forgiveness for ‘all the times single mothers had been told that to seek their children, whom they had been separated from, was a mortal sin, and sons and daughters who were taught the same’ – a reference to the fact that some priests discouraged mothers and their children separated in the homes from seeking each other out by telling them that to do so would be sinful, mortally sinful. It was palpably not true in any sense, including the theological. That was what the former inmates of the mother and baby institutions had been asking for, and they got it.
He addressed the same theme earlier in the day in the west of Ireland, in Knock, when he said, ‘this open wound challenges us to be firm and decisive in the pursuit of truth and justice.’ (Who, whom?)
There has been more of the same during this visit, notably when the pope met people who had been victims of predatory clerics. Francis has, I’d say, done as much as humanly possible to respond to what he has heard about abuse during his visit; he listened, and he’s a good listener.
Yet it probably won’t be enough for his unappeasable critics, those who like Colm O’Gorman of Amnesty International, have been requiring nothing less than an admission by the pope that the policy of concealing abuse and of passing predators from one place to another was directly quite explicitly by the Vatican. Others have been demanding that he announce, right now, changes of policy about identifying and dismissing the bishops who presided over the policy. Actually, it would have been very odd if he had gone into detail about disciplinary measures in what was a pastoral visit (his address to the Irish bishops after the mass was quite another matter).
But then, for his determined critics – who went to the trouble of organising separate public events to coincide with the Pope’s, which the state broadcaster RTE, will obligingly cover – practically nothing Francis could do or say would be enough. As one disgruntled Catholic said during an earlier episode: ‘Pope jumps off Tarpeian Rock; critics judge response insufficient.’
But for those others than the secularist political and journalistic class which in Ireland is far less challenged than in Britain, for whom Irish Catholicism can’t be buried too soon, this has been a successful visit. Last night’s concert at Croke Park was rather brilliant, with the pope playing the showman, insofar as he could in Italian. He was warm and physical, embracing children and playfully tapping a boy on the head with an order of service. He addressed families directly, and made much of the people who gave testimony at the event – including a fabulous Traveller called Missy (the star of the show) and a former heroin addict and father of 10. He referred to the miracle of water into wine at the wedding at Cana by declaring: ‘imagine a wedding with water instead of wine… Bruto (Gross)!’
Ok, not many babies will be baptised as Francis after this trip in the way that the last papal visit produced a generation of John Pauls, but it feels like a real engagement with Ireland by the papacy.
One friend who attended all the events said wearily that she and her husband had come because they felt so battered by the relentless, corrosive criticism of the church by journalists and poltiicians, and they wanted to be given fresh heart. They were.
PS. One subject the pope addressed explicitly during last night’s concert was the issue of infant baptism with the pope insisting that not baptising infants was a wasted opportunity – “it’s like a party that everyone is invited to”. That, if you’re interested, is a useful snub to the former Irish president, Mary McAleese, Catholic turned full time church critic, who previously described infant baptism as recruiting ‘infant conscripts’. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Mrs McA.
PPS. The allegations about the pope about which Damian Thompson writes made curiously little impact on the visit; most commentators observed that the allegations were made by a cleric hostile to the pope and left it at that.