An Irishman's Diary

 

I did not go to see the Pope on his visit to Ireland 20 years ago. It wasn't that I did not have the opportunity, that I wasn't born, that I wasn't a Roman Catholic or that I had any inside knowledge of the secret antics of Bishop Eamon Casey or Fr Michael Cleary, the Holy Father's supporters on the day. I did not go to see the Pope because the hype surrounding his visit made me profoundly uneasy. Am I the only one who will now lay claim to experiencing that sentiment at that time?

In a reverse form of "I told you so", well-known members of Irish society have been lining up to go on radio and television to say how we have changed over the past 20 years. They remember the camaraderie, the shared belief, the feeling of unity, they way they lent their papal chairs to each other or sat on the streets in them eating chips.

Golden age

And they get wistful about it. It was, their tone implies, a golden age of faith, a time when it was easy to believe in people's goodness and see virtue even in their offer of the papal chair or their place on the bus.

Am I the only one to say we did not need to know the specifics of the abuses of people and power and privilege? Knowledge of that was not necessary to wish for a certain restraint. Anyone could have known or suspected that the hysteria to which the vast majority of the population so readily succumbed was an orgy of self-indulgence of frightening proportions.

Yes, frightening. How do you feel when you hear that it is "a great day for Catholic Ireland", "a great day for the Irish" and "a day which affirms Catholic teaching"? How would you have felt if you were Irish but not a Catholic? If you were a Protestant, a Dissenter, a Jew, a divorcee, or someone whose mortal soul was said to be in danger because of the illegal importation of contraceptives? Because the hype did affirm the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church. It did affirm the teachings of that church. And as the whole State apparently professed itself "a Catholic country" (even leaving out the distinctions between state and country and the effect of such assertion on the people of the North), how would you have felt if this was your home too, and this was where you lived in a second marriage; in a homosexual relationship; as a non-Christian?

We hear now of "social exclusion". Surely this was social exclusion on a State-wide institutional basis. In affirming that we were a "Catholic country", who were we pretending did not exist? In affirming Roman Catholic teaching, whose human rights were we devaluing?

No matter that this abuse was all unintentional, brought about by a situation where the population was 95 per cent Roman Catholic. It is all the worse when prejudice is so instinctive that it is not thought about.

World figure

Let me not give the impression that I felt the Pope should not have been welcomed. As the leader of the majority faith on this island, as a man of peace and as a world figure he surely deserved a huge welcome. But did we have to go to such lengths to affirm our Catholicness, to not even recognise that dissenters existed? Did we have to use that hugely offensive and exclusive expression "Catholic Ireland"?

Mr David Quinn of the Irish Catholic newspaper said recently that it was the last time Ireland spoke as a Catholic nation. He and I disagree on practically every fundamental issue. In fact it is hard to imagine any two people whom could be so polarised. That is not to say that every word out of Mr Quinn's mouth is wrong and frequently Mr Quinn has challenged my own prejudices. Mostly, however, he confirms them.

Can Mr Quinn not celebrate his faith to the same extent because of the knowledge that the church of which he is a member no longer has the power to see its teachings enshrined in the law of the land? Does it affect his personal relationship with his church because there are people out there who are now denying this country the label "Catholic Ireland"?

Also in recent days there was a comment from the Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, the Rt Rev Paul Colton - an altogether different comment. Speaking in St Fin Barre's Cathedral in Cork, he asked us to keep the millennium celebrations in context. We might, he suggested, understand when "enough is enough".

"Exclusivist"

Bishop Colton asked too that we have a thought for those who would not be celebrating, for those who find emotive times of year demanding. It was vital, he said, that we be sensitive to these people and also have concern for those who have to work during the celebrations.

But most importantly Bishop Colton asked that the occasion not be celebrated in "an exclusivist way". "And I hope that the people of all faiths and none will join the Christian denominations in celebrating the Jesus of history," he added.

What a pity nobody thought to be so inclusive when the Pope came, that nobody in the 95 per cent majority felt safe enough to be magnanimous. That's why I didn't go to see the Pope.