The visit of Pope Francis to Ireland in 2018 is to be welcomed; warmly so. It will be low key, even modest, by comparison with that of Pope John Paul II in 1979. There will be no chants of "he's got the whole world in his hands". That was a different, more innocent Catholic Ireland which marked that first papal visit to these shores with a vast turnout and not a little triumphalism. We're "older" than that now.
The intervening decades have witnessed massive change in Irish attitudes to Catholic teaching, Catholic practice, and the authority of the Catholic Church. Yet, even in 1979, trends indicated change was under way.
They were greatly accelerated by the 1992 revelations that bishop of Galway Eamon Casey had a 17-year-old son and used diocesan funds to help with his care and education, money he subsequently repaid. Exacerbating this were later revelations about Fr Michael Cleary's children. He, with Bishop Casey, were the warm-up act for John Paul in Galway during the 1979 visit.
These however paled subsequently against findings of the Ferns (2005), Ryan (2009), Murphy (2009), and Cloyne (2011) reports on clerical child sex abuse, as well as the neglect and physical abuse of children in residential institutions run by religious congregations. In 2013 there was the interdepartmental inquiry report on Magdalene laundries and in 2018 there will be a report from the Mother and Baby Homes Commission.
The cumulative effect of the published reports, alongside growing secularisation in Ireland, was traumatic for Ireland, its Catholics, and their church. Now however, with familiarity and some distance, there is a sense that Ireland and the Catholic Church here are in recovery. This has been assisted by rigorous child-safeguarding measures that the church has introduced and maintains across the island.
A healing is under way. The visit by a compassionate pastor such as Pope Francis can only assist that. It is an opportunity for renewal of a beleaguered Catholic community.