The symbolism of the setting for the Taoiseach’s speech in Dublin Castle on Saturday bore down from above with a heavy weight.
Beneath a ceiling panel depicting the introduction of Christianity into Ireland, showing St Patrick directing the lighting of a paschal fire on the Hill of Slane, Leo Varadkar aimed to rekindle the relationship between the Catholic Church and the State in Ireland as a "more mature" relationship, "a new covenant for the 21st century".
The young Taoiseach, as old as the interregnum between the last papal visit and Saturday’s arrival of Pope Francis, delivered what many judged to be one of the finest speeches of his career and one of the best of our recent political history.
The mastery of Varadkar’s address, delivered before the 266th pontiff in St Patrick’s Hall, was the balance he struck: being both gracious and grave; praiseworthy and condemnatory; honest but never confrontational.
He showed it was possible to be charitable and critical, that the host of a State can respectfully say difficult things to the guest of another – a challenge for many leaders in these turbulent political times.
The effectiveness of his cleverly crafted 1,500-word speech – something aides said he had spent the summer considering and wrote himself – could be seen on the grave demeanour of the 81-year-old pontiff and how it would, minutes later, expose the shortcomings in the pope’s own address.
The most meaningful moment of the pontiff's remarks was his departure from his carefully chosen, anaesthetised script to share something heartfelt when he described his earlier encounter with Minister for Children Katherine Zappone and her words about the Tuam mother and baby home.
It was family that brought Pope Francis to Dublin, to attend the Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families, and Varadkar spoke like a family member having to share some difficult truths with an elderly uncle who represents a wing of the family that has long failed to keep pace with a younger generation.
The Taoiseach went back centuries to make his point, praising the role of the Catholic Church and Catholic organisations in laying the educational and healthcare foundations of the State and their current role filling gaps left by his own Government struggling with housing shortages and homelessness.
In place of Christian charity, forgiveness and compassion, far too often there was judgment, severity and cruelty, in particular towards women and children
But that all felt like careful preamble to prepare the pontiff for some hard punches.
That Varadkar diplomatically chose to share responsibility for the egregious failures of church and State in the abuse of our citizens only added to the power of the sentiments he expressed in his brief speech. He was right to use the collective “we”. The subtext was: we have and are taking responsibility, so should you.
"At times in the past, we have failed," he said. He used the words of one of the church's own, the Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy, to acknowledge the "dark aspects" of its history, and used the church's own guidebook, a verse from psalms, to recall "the failures of church and State and wider society and how they created a bitter and broken heritage for so many people, leaving a legacy of pain and suffering".
In delivery, he departed from his text, softening another blow: rather being “a history of sorrow and shame,” as he planned to say, he said: “this was a shared history of sorrow and shame”.
“In place of Christian charity, forgiveness and compassion, far too often there was judgment, severity and cruelty, in particular towards women and children and those on the margins,” said Varadkar.
‘Cries for help’
Where Pope Francis later failed to find the right words, the Taoiseach recognised the importance of recognition for the survivors, naming the institutions and practices that hurt so many: the Magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes, industrial schools, illegal adoptions and clerical child abuse.
There are “stains on our State, our society and also the church,” he said, being too generous in the ordering of blame, before painting vivid images of how the victims were treated, how they still feel pain and still seek justice: “People kept in dark corners, behind closed doors, cries for help that went unheard.”
The words were delicately chosen but it was clear what he was talking about
He implored the pontiff to follow through on his countless words on the abuse with actions. He appealed to the pontiff’s humility, compassion and honesty to guarantee that justice is done and truth is told.
Pope Francis was only one part of the Taoiseach’s audience. This was a political speech too for his home audience, casting Varadkar as leader and representative of a changed, more liberal and progressive Ireland, using a landmark visit to make a statement about where the country has come from and to.
He described a more diverse Ireland, deftly balancing his characterisation of the country that was not going to turn its back on its Catholic past or values but also a State that makes its own laws to address the complexities of life that the pope’s backward-looking organisation struggles with, “understanding that marriages don’t always work, that women should make their own decisions,” he said.
The words were delicately chosen but it was clear what he was talking about.
Faith and spirit
Family now had “many different wonderful forms”, said the country’s first gay leader, placing families with “same-sex partners” not even last in a diverse group listed off by the Taoiseach. His wording reflected a level of finesse that ran through his entire speech.
Speaking to an audience that included his partner Dr Matthew Barrett on one side and, on the other, Catholic leaders much criticised for making the LGBT-plus community feel unwelcome, Varadkar described Ireland as “a different country” than during the last papal visit 39 years ago.
“But make no mistake, modern Ireland is still a country with faith and spirit and values,” he said.
There is just a longer list of values now that includes social justice, diversity, openness, equality before the law and individual liberty.
So much of this had to be said, and Varadkar said it well, extremely well.
The speech should generate political capital for the Fine Gael leader; whether he will have the courage to use it, following through on loosening the church’s role in health and education, is another matter.
The speech set out his new covenant – but it is still only a blueprint.
Simon Carswell is Public Affairs Editor of The Irish Times