Pope’s visit to Ireland will not draw the 1979 crowds of 2.7m

August 2018 trip likely to include Northern Ireland but all details yet to be worked out


One thing is clear, even 21 months before Pope Francis visits Ireland in August 2018, the numbers who will turn out to see him will be nowhere near the estimated 2.7 million (almost half the island’s population) who came out in September 1979 when Pope St John Paul came here.

Then the population of the Republic was 3.36 million and 87 per cent of Catholics attended weekly Mass. On September 29th 1979, the first day of that visit, more than a million people gathered for the papal Mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, believed to be the largest gathering of Irish people in history.

It won’t be like that in August 2018 and Phoenix Park is unlikely to be a venue.

To further highlight the Ireland bookmarked by both visits, in 1979 Catholic social teaching held sway in the Republic with contraception, divorce and abortion banned by law. Not so now. That Ireland is a foreign country.

With Mass attendance levels in the low 20 per cents and declining, few vocations, and the average age of Irish Catholic priests approaching 70, we do things differently.

Traumatic events

Nor is it necessary to repeat here the traumatic events that have marked Irish Catholic church experience since 1979. Whether those be the bitterly fought so-called “moral civil wars” over liberalising legislation or, even more significantly, the findings of four statutory reports and one inter-departmental inquiry into shocking abuses in Catholic dioceses and institutions, with another report pending; that of the Mother and Baby Home Commission due for publication in spring 2018. That date may now also be influenced by Pope Francis’s visit. So too may a referendum on the Eight Amendment.

A schedule for the visit will not be finalised until shortly before August 2018. But it seems certain Francis will visit Northern Ireland, doing what Pope St John Paul was unable to in 1979.

In August of that year his visit itself was put at risk after the IRA blew up Lord Mountbatten, Nicholas Knatchbull, Dorothy Brabourne and Paul Maxwell at Mullaghmore in Co Sligo, followed by their killing of 18 British soldiers near Warrenpoint, Co Down.

He got as far as Drogheda in the archdiocese of Armagh where he appealed “on my knees” for an end to the violence in Northern Ireland.

It is most likely Pope Francis will say Mass in the Mall at Armagh, ecclesiastical capital of Ireland. The positive reaction on Monday to his possible visit to Northern Ireland makes this probable.

Northern protestants

First Minister Arlene Foster, a members of the Church of Ireland, said she would meet him. As significant was a statement from the General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland Rev Trevor Gribben. He trusted “that all in our community would take the opportunity to show due respect to such a visit”.

In Dublin it is believed Pope Francis will say the final Mass of the World Meeting of Families 2018 in Croke Park. Soprano Celine Byrne – a devout Catholic who sang at the final Croke Park Mass of the 2012 Eucharistic Congress – has been booked by the Vatican to sing at this Mass in May.

Byrne also said composer Fr Liam Lawton, who sang for Pope Francis in Sweden last month, will also to take part.

Of course it is not Pope Francis’s first time in Ireland. In 1980 he spent a few months with fellow Jesuits at Milltown Park in Dublin learning English. Fr Donal Neary, editor of The Messenger magazine, remembers him from those days and how people were concerned for him, aware that he had come from Argentina which was under military dictatorship at the time when he was Provincial.

“He came to learn English but also I suspect to get a break and a rest. He and lots of people in Argentina had been through a very tough time,” Fr Neary said.

The World Meeting of Families 2018 was announced for Dublin by Pope Francis himself in September last year, at the conclusion of the 2015 World Meeting in Philadelphia and in the presence of Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin for whom it is something of a coup.

He will host the event, with Fr Tim Bartlett as secretary general. It was also Archbishop Martin who succeeded in bringing the June 2012, 50th International Eucharistic Congress to Dublin.