A Church of Ireland perspective on the pope’s visit

Pope’s strength of Christian character provided opportunity for a renewal among Christians generally

When Pope Francis arrived in Ireland for the World Meeting of Families (WmoF), he landed in the midst of intense controversy over clerical abuse and same-sex marriage.

The former had seen the withdrawal of WMoF keynote speaker Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl over criticism, in the recently published Pennsylvania grand jury report, of his handling of abuse allegations while he was bishop of Pittsburgh, and the latter saw former president Mary McAleese going so far as to describe the Roman Catholic Church's teaching on homosexuality as "evil".

While the Vatican and local hierarchies have taken steps to promote the safeguarding of children in the church environment, there have been calls, including now directly to the pope from both the President and the Taoiseach, for more to be done.

All of this sorry tragedy, of course, is not confined to the Roman Catholic Church, as recent events in the Church of England have clearly shown, quite apart from non-church contexts.

On the day he left Ireland, Pope Francis, along with other top Roman Catholic churchmen, faced trenchant criticism, including resignation calls, in a since widely reported 11-page document of rather labyrinthine reach from Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.

As the abuse scandals in particular have shown, inauthenticity will certainly bring its severe penalties

Archbishop Viganò was nuncio in the US from 2011 to 2016, and earlier had been secretary general of the governorate of Vatican City state.

Despite the archbishop’s seniority, Francis declined to comment on the document but wisely left open the possibility of speaking later.


However, not least from what the people of Ireland have now seen in him, up close, Pope Francis can be expected to proceed not only with caution but also with integrity.

Where there is a positive will from leadership, and while people cry for more action, one can hope that the victims and survivors of abuse, in whatever denomination or organisation, will find the response and healing consolation they long for, sooner rather than later.

Pope Francis is not really interested in institutionalism but, rather, in authentic love for all people. Authenticity is what will always commend the Christian faith and, as the abuse scandals in particular have shown, inauthenticity will certainly bring its severe penalties.

The context of the papal visit was, of course, all about the family but it also provided an opportunity for a renewal of spiritual life within the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and among Christians generally, not least because of the pope’s strength of Christian character.

Looking retrospectively on the WMoF, one must return to its basic text, Amoris Laetitia: The Joy of Love. Coming as an "Apostolic Exhortation" from Pope Francis, it bears witness to the fruit of synodical meetings in 2014 and 2015.

Family structures

The document recognises the diverse nature of family structures nowadays and is characterised by a reaching out to people of good conscience rather than an outright condemning of relationships that do not accord with official dogma.

While the regulations reputedly are often simply ignored, they require more intense scrutiny and reflection

There is a tension here which could be seen as a contradiction but is better seen as a merciful and respectful outreach that leaves space for changes if they come to be seen as right.

The WMoF has given pause for everyone to reflect on family life. It is close, it is intimate and, hopefully, it provides a space in which each person can be free to express himself or herself and be listened to with understanding and, most importantly, unconditional love.

Speaking at St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Francis showed that he did not have an idealised view of family life but knew that marriage and family constantly present challenges. He pointed out that while love is not ephemeral it does need to be nurtured in the home.

From an ecumenical perspective, it is to be hoped that the rules surrounding Eucharistic sharing will be much further relaxed, globally, not least for the sake of interchurch families. While the regulations reputedly are often simply ignored, they require more intense scrutiny and reflection.

Repeatedly during his visit, Pope Francis said to his audience, grazie, thank you. It is a salutation that is well returned to him.

Canon Ian Ellis is rector of Newcastle, Co Down, and was editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette from 2001 until last year