A papal visit would have more impact this time


OUR REMEMBERING of the September 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II has comprised part nostalgia and part self-satisfaction, the nostalgia being less for the pope than for the feeling of innocence nowadays associated with those times, writes JOHN WATERS

The anniversary analysis went something like this: the pope, personable but representing an outmoded form of thinking, came to Ireland at approximately the moment when we began to wake up. After he left, the church fell apart, and Irish society “matured into new understandings.

I remember differently. Although John Paul had a superficial attraction for me, I deliberately placed myself outside the embrace of his visit, not wanting a surge of sentimentalism to unseat my determination to keep walking away from the church. At the time I was a working as a roadie with a pop band, and on the night of the massive gathering in the Phoenix Park, we were playing in Derry. All the way home, we faced into the headlights of the cars coming back from Dublin.

The numbers who turned out to see the pope are remembered now as evidence of the vigour of Irish Catholicism at the time. It was, we were told many times this week, the end of an era – as one priest crudely put it, “the last sting of a dying wasp”.

Conventional wisdom assumes that Irish Catholicism remained vibrant until the emergence of the clerical scandals of the 1990s, starting with Bishop Eamonn Casey, a cameo award-winner of the papal visit. But really the scandals were no more than pretexts for people who were already failing to find an engagement with Catholicism to declare publicly their alienation.

The real problem, prevailing long before the pope came, related to the the reduction, over the previous century or so, of Christianity as expressed in Irish Catholicism into two thin strands: moralism and emotionalism. The church had become a moral police force, and Christ, seemingly incompatible with this function, had been externalised and suffused in an aura of sentimentality. Christianity had become separated from reality, except in so far as reality consisted of rules.

The mass media persona of John Paul II embodied both the characteristics of moralism and emotionalism infecting the Irish church. This was nothing like the full truth of John Paul, but mass media communications are poorly adapted for truth-telling. By turns, the pope came across as avuncular and finger-wagging, smiling and stern, affectionate and unyielding. Nothing about his Irish visit managed to transcend these dualisms.

In his various homilies that weekend, the pope talked about peace, family, values, the law of God. But, for all the positive emotionalism, his language served mainly to underline the emerging sense that Christianity was not in harmony with the coming time. The words he used were designed to shore up something that really no longer existed, if it ever had. For all his brilliance, John Paul was slightly behind what, deep down, the culture really felt.

We are told that the events of 1979 are unrepeatable. But I’m not sure. Pope Benedict XVI is different to his predecessor, but not in the ways many Irish people think. I’ve been struck many times by the tacit hostility he provokes in some quarters. When you nudge such sentiments, people invariably say that Benedict is “reactionary”, “right-wing”, “dogmatic”. Few who praise John Paul and seek to bury Benedict could name a single point of theological difference between them.

But, of the two, Pope Benedict is by far the more tuned in to the condition of modern culture. He has a profound grasp of what has happened to Christian societies, including Ireland, beset by a shrivelling of reality through ideology and language.

What is called secularism, operating in a pincer movement with the reduction of Christianity to morals and sentiment, has removed from our cultures the means for a human being to access in reality a total definition of himself. Modern man remains secure while remaining within his own constructs, but even a glance out the window, at the horizon of knowable reality, casts him into a dizzying terror. His only, yes, hope, lies in distraction: money, intoxicants, false ideas of freedom.

Insisting that human intelligence must embrace all that is, Benedict makes the reintegration of faith and reason the centrepiece of his papal mission. His message is all but lost in the flurry of dishonesty that attends media presentations of his interventions, but still he continues to remind us that if we are to rediscover the authentic experience of being human, we must look intensely at reality and reconnect with the knowledge that lies within us, beneath the common mentality seeking to overwhelm us.

For this reason, I believe a visit by Benedict would provoke a response in Irish society far deeper and more vital than the visit of John Paul. In these 30 years of what we term progress, we have built for ourselves a box from which we gaze uneasily at a reality shorn of almost everything that is true. We are just about ready to have this most brilliant of men come look us in the eyes and tell us what he sees.

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